(Originally published on Clarity News)
The Scottish referendum on independence from the United Kingdom broke records last week with an average voter turnout of 84.6% – in some constituencies, turnout was higher than 90%.
Contrast this with the turnout figures for the last General Election across the United Kingdom, which stands at a measly 65.1%, or the last Scottish parliament election, which only just reached 50%. Over 97% of the eligible population registered to vote in last week’s referendum – such engagement with politics has been unheard-of in recent years.
Since Thursday, the numbers of people joining political parties in Scotland has skyrocketed, with the SNP now the UK’s third largest political party (by membership) after the Tories and Labour; and the Scottish Greens more than doubling their membership in less than a week. It is clear that this does not mean the end of political engagement for many of Scotland’s electorate.
Despite the above figures, political engagement with the independence referendum in Scotland was always about more than political parties: one of the reasons for the high turnout compared to recent elections was precisely because this referendum was not an election.
If there is one thing that the ‘Yes’ campaign’s late surge in the polls, and indeed its two-year rise from 25% to 45% in the polls, proves, it is that engaging people in politics in twenty-first century austerity Britain is not something that can be done by top-down establishment tactics that we’ve seen in Westminster for many years now. True engagement with politics happens on the doorstep, and it happens when people really believe that they can make a difference in their future. This is true for those who voted ‘No’ as well – people believed that this vote was an important one to show up for because they believed it would actually make a difference. The significance of this cannot be understated.
The independence referendum is over, at least this time around. But a question of equal, if different, importance remains – how do we take the engagement with politics that we’ve seen in Scotland over the last two years, and spread it throughout the UK? How do we engage the most marginalised communities by giving them a real voice in their own future?
A divisive starting-point is not the right way forward. Divide-and-rule is a tried and tested tactic that the establishment have used for decades to keep dissent from spilling over. Since the Tory-Lib Dem coalition government was formed in 2010, it’s been most prevalent in the governments’ rhetoric of “strivers and scroungers” and the rise of anti-immigration sentiment from right-wing groups such as UKIP. This creates divisions amongst people equally affected by the hard-hitting austerity forced upon them. It distracts from the fact that the ones making the laws are members of a wealthy political elite who can retreat to their expenses-funded second homes whilst demonising the poor as the cause of the problem the bankers created.
We have seen murmurings of this even since the referendum, as well: the West Lothian question and devolution in England has been touted as the reason for postponing the promised further powers for Scotland. Scottish and English voters, both upset and tired with the way that Westminster politics works, are being set against each other by this sort of rhetoric – whereas actually they share a common cause in fixing an unrepresentative governmental system that purports to make laws on the behalf of people who didn’t vote for them in the first place.
Such divisions are distractions, and effective ones at that. In order to maintain the momentum of popular politics that we’ve seen in Scotland recently, it’s of paramount importance to cut through such sentiments and get on with the real job of involving people in projects where they feel – and have – real agency to make a difference for the better. Real politics happens at the grassroots, and amongst the cacophony of theoretical questions about the way forward for Britain post-referendum, a group of single mothers threatened with eviction have occupied an empty estate in the most deprived borough in London. Here is a group of people taking action against a government that is out of touch – against a government that actively demonises and oppresses them. Here is a group of people doing politics.
The issues that the ‘yes’ campaign focused on are still very real, and are still causing very real damage, both in Scotland and in the rest of the UK. Grassroots organisations have been campaigning on them for years – just look at the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament, still fighting tirelessly for its cause and the decommissioning of Trident. Grassroots campaigning on issues that matter is real politics; real people power. It doesn’t always feel like you’re making progress, but if there is one thing that we should learn from looking at the over-350 grassroots campaigns that came together under the ‘Yes Scotland’ umbrella, it is that ordinary people raising their voices to imagine a better society can make the establishment run scared.
In order to engage, people need to have a realistic hope that their actions will make a difference. Whether people in Scotland voted yes or no last week, by the end of the campaign, after a flurry of promises from Better Together about change in Scotland’s future, a vote for the status quo was simply not on the ballot. If – dare I say it, when – politicians inevitably fail to live up to their promises, we need to convince people that politics isn’t over. Political engagement goes beyond the ballot box; political engagement is more than the ballot box.
Whilst the referendum may be over, the discussion on the future of the United Kingdom feels somewhat like it’s only just begun. The way forward for political engagement is not going to look the same everywhere– but in order to keep it going, to prevent being crushed by the same-old establishment politics, solidarity across the UK between grassroots movements fighting the establishment has got to be the priority. Attention must be shifted from the ballot box to issues affecting people’s lives today: to food banks, to the bedroom tax, to the scandal of a £100 billion renewal of a defunct nuclear weapons system whilst the NHS is privatised off for being “unaffordable”, to the climate change that threatens the future of all humanity. Fantastic campaigns already exist on all these issues – whether we can channel the political energies now surging through the UK into action on creating a better future will be the test, though.
Whether you choose to engage in these issues through traditional party-political means or whether you opt out of the system entirely is up to you. But let’s take inspiration from this referendum, whichever side of the vote you wanted to win, and remember what it feels like to actually believe that people, not politics, can make a difference. Let’s reclaim power from the detached elite – and fight for a better future.