Pushing up popular participation

Chris Hegarty says Voices for Scotland can re-invigorate the vitality of civic Scotland in its independence campaign

Much is being written about the crisis of democracy, the rise in populism and increasing political polarisation. As a new, civic, grassroots pro-independence campaign that seeks to effect change via democratic engagement, Voices for Scotland has a vested interest in understanding, and helping to tackle, democratic challenges that currently exist in Scotland. But the first thing to do is test the suggestion of a crisis of democracy, and examine the extent to which it applies across the board, including here in Scotland.

So, in September last year, the international media circus rolled into Stockholm, predicting with excitement that Sweden’s long-held social democratic tolerance would be the next domino to fall to populism’s gravitational pull. Once the general election results came in, many stuck doggedly to the prepared script. The Times, for example, reported ‘Right wing radicals make big gains’ and that ‘Sweden’s open-door migration policy has upended the political system’. Yet the anti-immigration Sweden Democrats were supported by 17.6% of voters. As was the case with other small parties, they increased their share of the vote – in their case by 4.7%. In other words, after a period in which Sweden had experienced unprecedented immigration and acceptance of asylum seekers, 82.4% still chose to vote for other parties that did not share the Sweden Democrats’ hostility to immigration.

The more accurate headline here – though one that very few chose to run – might have been ‘Swedes emphatically reject anti-immigration party’. But that didn’t fit the narrative. Perhaps, we need to be careful in making sweeping generalisations. In Scotland, clearly, we face democratic challenges, and politics is in some ways polarised. But we should examine those challenges, and the nature of that polarisation, before suggesting what we might do about them.

Unlike in some other places, Scotland has not yet seen a substantial rise in right-wing populism. Nigel Farage’s UKIP or Brexit parties have polled below 15% in every election in Scotland. While some would characterise Scottish politics as polarised, arguably those ‘poles’ are situated either side of Scotland’s constitutional fault line rather than reflecting increasing left-right or populist-liberal democratic divergence.

Equally, Scotland’s levels of political engagement can be high. The SNP now has roughly as many members as the Tories do across the whole of Britain, the Scottish Greens’ membership multiplied several times over after indyref, and grassroots ‘Yes’ groups continue to thrive nationwide. Scotland’s electoral systems (at Holyrood and local government levels) mean many people still feel that their votes count.

In terms of identifying democratic challenges and polarisation, Scotland might therefore have some similarities to, but also many differences from, other parts of Britain, the US and elsewhere. Three particular challenges from Voices for Scotland’s perspective are: i) voter fatigue; ii) disillusionment with politics, especially Westminster/Brexit; and iii) the need to open up conversations with people who voted ‘no’ or are undecided.

There are clearly mixed views across Scotland on whether, and if so when, we should have another independence referendum. Given how dysfunctional and exhausting British politics has been in recent times, it’s no surprise that some people aren’t as enthusiastic about another big political event as others. But the case for independence is a wholly positive one, based on taking responsibility for our own choices, on making the most of the enormous natural and human resources that Scotland has, and on the democratic and social benefits of being a normal, self-governing country. With the backdrop of British politics being so despairing, a positive campaign that highlights Scotland has another, much more optimistic path open to it can inspire and act as something of an antidote to any voter fatigue that might exist.

Disillusionment with politics, especially with Westminster and Brexit, is both a challenge and an opportunity. What Voices for Scotland needs to do is highlight Scotland’s positive alternative and demonstrate that the benefits of independence will more than repay any investment of time and energy.

In order to open up conversations in which the case for independence can be made, we need to start from where people are. For example, Voices for Scotland’s website features as many voices in favour of the union as it does those who favour independence. Coming from a clearly pro-independence campaign, that takes a bit of getting used to for some people, but it’s about listening to those who voted ‘no’, to their concerns, to their questions, and being willing to open up conversations on their terms, from their starting points.

We also recognise that personality-driven and slightly tribal party political debate can be off-putting to some. This is where Voices for Scotland, as a grassroots organisation, can offer something different. The pro-independence parties are members of the Scottish Independence Convention but there are 23 members in all, so our campaign is not party political and does not promote one particular vision of independence.

More generally, we also need to get away from the perception – in some media, and held by some members of the public – that independence is driven by one individual or one party. It was obvious to everyone involved in the 2014 ‘yes’ campaign how inclusive, broad and diverse the campaign was. Voices for Scotland has a role to play in demonstrating that Scotland’s independence is something that, ultimately, will be led and owned by Scotland’s people – and that would be the opposite of a crisis of democracy.

Chris Hegarty is Coordinator for Voices for Scotland (www.voicesforscotland.scot)