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?

Why is it suddenly a shock that Scotland want independence?

The referendum on Scottish independence was proposed in March 2013, passed by the Scottish Parliament in November 2013 and received Royal Assent in December 2013. The whole process has taken longer than eighteen months to come to a head. It’s 307 years since the King of Scotland became King of England, and 268 years since the end of the Jacobite rising that saw the hopes of a Scottish king returned to the throne dashed. Walter Scott’s first damn novel, published in 1814, was about complex sympathies with Scottish nationalism under Hanoverian kings. Braveheart was a hit. (Sorry, Scotland.) So why have newspapers exploded in the last few weeks with the news that Scotland might vote Yes?

It could be interpreted as a symptom of how out of touch Westminster has always been with Scottish voters – or, in fact, any voters in the provinces outside the capital.

London has always been a law unto itself. Since Londoners made their choice as to refuse Matilda’s claim as Empress in 1141 (hint: you haven’t heard of her because they said no), London’s been a unique political reality in the British Isles. It’s got its own relative gravity. And there’s a semi-real stereotype that its people and its politicians orbit London and leave the rest of the country/ies up to their own devices. Wales, Scotland, Northern Ireland and the rest of England are moons orbiting the sun of London – and it’s really bloody annoying when you’re not one of the chosen few.

Sure, Londoners got a bad name when they moaned about Tube closures as Dawlish station sank beneath the waves. They are criticised for their London ways, and the attention they take from other people in other places. Well, that’s an issue of social culture as much as anything else – of a lot of people being affected by one thing, and a few being affected by something else. There are thirteen million people in Greater London. In sheer weight of numbers, it’s not easy to argue with those kind of market forces.

There are five million people in Scotland, four million of whom are eligible to vote in the referendum. There are three million people in Wales (no jokes about sheep, please – there are twice as many sheep in England as there are in Cymru). There are 53 million people in England, and in case you aren’t good at maths, that means that a quarter of the population of England lives in London.

This is why politics focuses on London so much. Yes, it’s a simple tyranny of the majority, and that’s a problem in itself (and one that technology, and the increasing democracy allowed by the internet, will challenge in future). But it’s also a question of applying resources to their most lucrative place, and that’s always been the capital.

If you wanted to be optimistic, I suppose you could say that if you focus policies on London, you could improve things for a lot of people very quickly. But I don’t think politics is about benefiting the people, certainly not the way it’s done at the moment.

And besides, London already has the Oyster card, which is amazing (though apparently going to be phased out, because they don’t know what’s good for them). What more do they need?

But I digress.

The fact that national newspapers are running “shock” headlines about a Yes vote suddenly leading the field, leaving leaders scrambling to issue political ultimata, indicates just how deep the problem of focusing too much on the capital goes. This story’s been in going on for a very long time, though, and whatever your feelings on the matter, it just shouldn’t come as a surprise that there’s a hefty chance that the Scots might vote yes.

My feelings on Scottish independence are complicated, and honestly, I’m not voting, so I didn’t particularly feel the need to share them. But then I thought, well, I do need to blog more. And once the votes have been cast, excited speculation will be irrelevant, so I thought I would just put some ponderings out there.

I support every people’s right to self-determination.

I was raised to think of myself as Irish, not British, and with a keen awareness of modern Irish history. In case you aren’t aware, my mother’s father was an Irish politician (and footballer, and lawyer, and MEP, and also a great violinist – he was pretty cool) and a member of a political party founded on the ideal of Ireland being a self-governing republic. Simply by existing, both sides of my family have always challenged the English historical narratives that I received at school (my father’s family are Anglo-Indian), which pushed me to think about the way things are, and how that’s different to the way things are told.

My grandmother was a codebreaker for the Americans in India during World War II, but I wasn’t allowed to do my history project on her experiences because they “weren’t relevant to the World War II curriculum”. If you weren’t writing about Britain and Germany, you weren’t going to pass the test. I was ten years old. I was furious – and to get a mark and I had to do what I was told.

And people say that privilege isn’t a problem in education?

I have always believed that we have a right to vote for our leaders, that we should try to create a society in which we are truly born equal, that universal education is the key to achieving social equality, and that privileges of race, gender, religion and class must be challenged in order to be overcome. I suppose, if you look at my principles, I could support Scottish independence simply because I don’t think the UK has a right to call itself united (more on this another time), and I don’t believe in kingdoms.

In practise, though, I think it’s a lot more complicated than that. For one thing, whatever the Scots do, I don’t really mind. It’s their choice, and I’m not eligible to choose. But I find it frustrating that there aren’t more referenda in the UK. It frustrates me that once again, choices that affect many are made by the few.

I’m not saying that the whole country should be made to vote on Scottish independence. Sheer weight of numbers is against the Scots, so that’s unfair right off the bat. I am saying that the whole country should be made to vote at all. Voting should be a civic duty, because it’s not a choice we should be allowed to duck out of through apathy or laziness. There should be more things available for us to vote on. We should be consulted on the way things are run, and to make sure we’re all properly equipped for the responsibility, we should all receive a quality of education that means we are empowered to make well-informed political choices.

That’s what I believe.

That’s why it makes me spit with rage that people keep saying things about David Cameron being “the Prime Minister who loses Scotland”. There have been calls for him to resign, claims that his party will no longer trust him, that he will be seen as “personally culpable” for the conditions that have led to this happening.

Don’t get me wrong. I hate the wilful ignorance and snobbery of conservative politics. I hate the denial of social problems. I hate the fact that so many of the country’s leaders are white, privately-educated males. And I hate this:

“Three in four senior judges, 59 per cent of the Cabinet, 57 per cent of permanent secretaries, 50 per cent of diplomats, 47 per cent of newspaper columnists, 33 per cent of the Shadow Cabinet and 24 per cent of MPs went to Oxford or Cambridge University. One in seven judges went to five independent schools – Eton, Westminster, Radley, Charterhouse or St Paul’s Boys.”

(I’m not saying that there’s anything wrong with people who went to private schools, by the way. Many of my friends benefited from a private education, and I went to a grammar school for two years, but I don’t think you should have to go to a special school to get a high standard of education. I believe in free, universal education to the highest quality, for everyone. I don’t believe we should have to pay for a better kind of education, for a better class of class – and I don’t agree with money as an exclusionary measure, or the privileges that blind people to ongoing social problems.)

As much as all these things, I hate the fact that they describe David Cameron as “personally culpable”, because it’s a cheap, punchy piece of rhetoric that hides all of the real problems. Accusing him of being the one weak link, politicians and political commentators make it about one rich white man, instead of about the institutionalised, endemic failure of the system he happens to spearhead.

Make it about Cameron, and by implication, the problem goes away when he does. But it doesn’t. This isn’t about Scotland running away from David Cameron, or David Cameron as a failed shepherd whose flock is going astray. A nation isn’t some spare change that’s slipped down the back of the sofa.

The issue is a lot deeper and more complicated than one rich white man’s reputation after centuries of political unrest boil to the surface and become an issue on this scale. And the problem has always been that London focuses on London, that politicians focus on other politicians, that there isn’t enough transparency about money, that our MPs come from a particular societal niche and so they don’t ever accurately reflect the cares and interests of the people they’re supposed to serve.

Here’s a thought for you: can you name the Welsh First Minister? Do you know the difference between an MP and an AM? What are the major political concerns of Northern Ireland? What did the Good Friday Agreement achieve in 1998?

The UK isn’t really united, because most people outside Wales and Northern Ireland can’t answer those questions. And Scotland is no exception.

Scotland’s quest for independence is a symptom of an ongoing problem. While I might have reservations about the policies that will come into play if they do branch off on their own, I also accept that I’m not an expert in any of the matters to hand (border controls, currency, the cost of running embassies in other nations, etc). And, ultimately, I don’t really mind what happens tomorrow. The rest of the UK is an absolute mess, so what I hope is that whatever the vote is, the issues and policies raised will kick-start some change.

I don’t want to see triumphant gloating if Scotland says No – and I don’t want to see David Cameron held culpable if Scotland says Yes. The events that have led to this vote are more wide-ranging, and it’s time we started discussing what else led us down this road. Because in a way, Scottish independence might be a good answer for those north of the border, but it’s not something that can be applied to, say, England. Could England secede from the UK? Would they achieve a better future if they did?

England already pay more for education than the rest of the UK. They pay more for the NHS. Their government doesn’t look out for them the same way that the Scottish and Welsh and Northern Irish governments focus on their own people. (I say this as someone who grew up in England, but now quite happily lives in Wales.) But that’s a problem in itself, because I don’t believe in nations, and I don’t like the fact that convenient geography and a history that’s ignored by the people in power is what makes some places look to their own concerns. We should treat all people equally, and we should be empowered to make our own informed choices.

What I really hope is that if the Scottish become independent, it might wake people up to the chance for change that exists, and has always existed, we just haven’t stood up and demanded it yet.

I want independence. But I want independence from a corrupt system of privilege that focuses on keeping a certain type of person in power. And, ultimately, that’s why I decided to share my thoughts. Because it’s only by speaking that ideas spread.

And I might be lucky. There might be others who agree. And there might be enough of us that we can make something change.

Travelling Tales: 9/11 (New York, Day 3)

Today, of course, was 9/11, and a very interesting day to be in New York it was.

I started off fairly unhistorically, meeting Ellie for some absolutely amazing pancakes for brunch in the West Village (lemon pancakes with strawberries and maple syrup: amazing).

Ellie and I then went for a lovely walk down the riverside, dodging cyclists as we atoned for eating so many pancakes. In fact, I took Ellie to the Irish heritage hunger memorial that I visited with Carmel a couple of days ago, which was fun. I noticed something that I hadn’t before, which was that the names of Irish counties and cities were carved into the granite rocks they had scattered around the place. I took photos of a few (especially Clare, for my ma).

We then walked past the World Trade Centre site – or we intended to. The main road that we needed to cross in order to get there was, just as we got to it, the site of a massive, miles-long avalanche of motorcyclists, hundreds and hundreds of them pouring down the streets. I believe it’s a memorial ride in honour of those who died on 9/11, but there were definitely some tensions between them and a guy carrying a ‘build the mosque now’ placard.

There were a lot of demonstrations going on around Ground Zero today, which is why it was so interesting to be there. Not just commemorating the dead, but pro-war on terror and anti-war at all, ‘Grief should not be an excuse for bigotry’ pro-Islamic centre, ‘Jesus loves America’ which was ostensibly honouring the dead and those who gave up their lives, but spent a lot of time shouting about how Jesus made America great and made New York great and how He built America just for us so we should be grateful and love him, which I thought was a shame because it made it a bit contentious (Native Americans?) and sort of detracted from honouring those who died. Politics was everywhere today.

It made me wonder: who’ll be happy if this centre doesn’t go up? Who’ll be happy if it does? And what, if anything, does that say about them?

Here are a few photos of the different rallies:

These are the Christian demonstrators:

And these are the pro-Islamic centre people:

The funniest demonstration was a group of Marxists who were standing by the pro-Islamic centre crowd but criticising all the other demonstrations, saying that everybody else’s demonstrations were a sign of the evil of the capitalist system and how the power should be in… different hands. It was all very Doctor Horrible. I picked up their pamphlet, anyway, just to see what was in it (a lot of Trotsky. Seriously, there’s an ‘Honour Comrade Trotsky’ thing on the second page). Anyway, I thought it would be fun to unleash my Deconstruction Skillz on it, which I intend to do later on.

Anyway, after our encounter with the conspiratorial communists, Ellie and I went to that bastion of Americana, Starbucks, and had tea. We then walked up through various districts of New York, via some japes in jewellery shops trying on lots of bling, through Soho and along the edge of Chinatown, and then we went up to Times Square and broadway (because I’m a really terrible tourist, I’ve only seen the Statue of Liberty from a distance and I’ve been to no other famous NY landmarks). So I took some shiny neon pictures and a nice shot of the Empire State building:

And then we spotted Mickey Mouse on his way home from the office:

And then I came back to New Jersey and went out to dinner with Carmel, her sister Rita, and some of their high school friends who are still in the area, which was a lovely evening. Her sister Rita lived with a couple of the friends for a few years when they were younger, I think, which sounds like it was a pretty lively household. It was a great night, though (and the food was amazing, especially a hand-made spicy guacamole dip that was just incredible).

Wow. Today’s post has been pretty long, but it merited it. It’s getting late now, and I have to get to bed! My legs aren’t so happy with me for making them walk so far today, but hey, I fuelled them with pancakes, so I’m not sure why they’re complaining.

Tomorrow, alas, is my last full day in New York/New Jersey. I’ve had a wonderful time here, and it’s been great to spend time with Carmel and catch up with Ellie. I’m not sure what we have planned for tomorrow, but I’m sure it’ll be amazing fun – though maybe not quite so exciting as guessing at the demonstration that’s going on around the next corner and having a man confess to you that he’s a Trotskyist while he’s trying to talk to you about the underlying problems of the system.