The Scottish independence referendum was a triumph of political participation. But where do we go from here?

(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.

#YesScotland: 5 Ways to Continue the Fight

Originally published on Novara Media on September 22 2014.

The day after the referendum, walking to university after two hours’ sleep, I was glum. I’d campaigned for independence and I’d been disappointed. Edinburgh was full of rainy pathetic fallacy and I passed people openly weeping in the streets. It was grim. On my way back home later that day, I saw some ‘yes’ posters in somebody’s window which had been added to over the morning. Silently, defiantly: ‘still yes’.

It would easy to look back at the campaign for Scottish independence and be filled with anger at Westminster and their empty devolution promises, lies and scare tactics, and be upset and pessimistic about the future now that the visions we all spent the last two years thinking, talking, and campaigning about aren’t going to come to light. However, there was always going to be life beyond the referendum, and yes or no, visions of the future aren’t much good when practical action doesn’t follow. Yes – we lost. But what we have won is an incredibly politically engaged population across Scotland, many of whom for the first time in their lives have felt like fighting for a better society might actually make a difference. And that is something we cannot afford to lose.
So rather than looking back, I want to look forward, and here are my top five recommendations for continuing the fight for a better society.

1. Maintain solidarity.

I can’t say this enough. One of the most amazing things to come out of the yes campaign was the conversations and bonds formed between people from vastly different socio-economic backgrounds and walks of life. From people who do quite well under neoliberal capitalist patriarchy to those right at the bottom of the pile, the project of imagining a future Scotland where all could prosper gave people who would normally never cross paths a common cause to unite around. Just because the referendum is over doesn’t mean that there isn’t more to do – political engagement goes beyond a lost vote. Whilst the temptation may be to concentrate on how to continue the independence campaign, the most disadvantaged areas of the country (not coincidently, the areas which did vote yes to independence) are suffering austerity, cuts and oppression. Working with these communities to maintain political engagement in a practical way is of paramount importance now, from encouraging workplace organisation to fighting cuts to essential services for women and parents. Continuing to learn how to stand in solidarity without crushing the voices we are trying to elevate must take priority as we move forward.

2. Focus on the issues.

Most of Scotland, myself included, probably never wants to hear the phrase “currency union” again. But many of the other issues debated on throughout the referendum remain keenly relevant, both in Scotland and beyond. Now that the referendum is over, issue-based campaigning on food banks, Trident, climate change, austerity and so on can continue anew; refreshed, because people have dared to imagine a society where these issues no longer exist. They don’t go away because the independence question has gone away (for the time being) – and a revived energy from people who now know what it feels like to believe they can change the future is exactly what many of these long-standing campaigns need.

3. Keep young people engaged and active.

71% of 16 and 17-year olds voted for an independent Scotland, which means that almost three-quarters of the 16 and 17 year olds in Scotland have just witnessed their dreams of a better future snatched away from them predominantly by the voting habits of older generations. This referendum was the first opportunity the UK has ever given people aged 16 to have a democratic say over their own future, and they have proved that they should not be patronised by ‘adults’ who believe that young people cannot be trusted to handle politics. The defeat felt by many teenagers in Scotland right now is crushing: keeping young people engaged, treating them with respect and allowing them to keep having a say in their own future is the only way we can ensure we don’t end up with a generation lost to a pessimistic apathy.

4. Form new alliances.

Yes, there are a lot of angry and upset yes voters in Scotland right now. But there are also a lot of no voters who are already watching in horror as Westminster reneges on its last-minute devolution promises. No longer having to split people into two camps is not a bad thing, and I would personally be wary of any movement that tries to maintain a division between groups of the population depending on how they voted on 18 September. Since the referendum, there has been no shortage of writing from throughout the UK on the broken state of the Union and Westminster-based politics. People across England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland are calling for more control over their lives and their futures. New alliances can be formed between grassroots activists challenging the status quo, and in a post-referendum society this is only going to be easier. Leave behind the grudges – show people that the fight can continue, and it can benefit everybody.

5. Don’t give up or give in.

When was the last time you can remember that an entire nation was engaged with political debate, and people felt like they had the right to comment on issues and envisage a better society no matter what their background was? When was the last time that the Westminster establishment ran so scared that Gordon Brown was forced to help out a struggling David Cameron? When was the last time that people really felt like they might be able to stick it to the power?

We can still do this – we can still make them run – and the yes campaign has shown that the way to achieve this is through grassroots engagement, collaboration across campaign groups, linking up the issues and refusing to give in to lies and scaremongering. We’ve spent the last two years imagining a better Scotland – and we don’t need to live in an independent state to start making it happen.

Why I’m voting Yes

On Thursday 18 September, I’m going to be voting in favour of Scottish independence. In no particular order, a few of my reasons are below – but before that, I want to say something about the Yes campaign.

When I arrived in Scotland a little over a year ago now I wasn’t sure whether I would get that involved, or passionate, about the campaign for Scottish independence. I didn’t know much about it, I had some doubts about whether (as an English person) it was “my place” to get involved, and I didn’t know much about the issues at stake. But the past twelve months have changed all that. I’m not sure how to put into words how amazing it is up here right now. The atmosphere is totally electric. Almost every conversation I overhear is about the referendum. People actually believe that they have the power to change their future. And the Yes campaign has been the cause of that. The Yes campaign has been the one knocking on doors in deprived areas informing people about how to register to vote (the No campaign has had no voter registration drive – makes you wonder whether they actually trust the Scottish people to decide the future of Scotland). The No campaign has the entire power of corporate media, Westminster and the BBC behind it (to the extent that the BBC have actually edited out footage of Alex Salmond giving an answer to questions about the referendum to make it look like he didn’t have the answer – you couldn’t make this shit up). The Yes campaign is made of over 350 independent campaigns on every issue from Trident to food banks, and its grassroots power is evident. It’s a coming-together of people to stand up to vested interests and powers-that-be, and it’s snowballed like nothing I’ve ever seen. Giving people hope, giving them inspiration, giving them something to fight for. The Yes campaign is people saying no to scaremongering, no to governments that don’t represent the people that vote (38 out of the last 68 Westminster governments were ones that were not voted for by Scotland), no to fear. I can’t put into words the atmosphere in Scotland right now. Last night I danced in the sold-out Usher Hall with thousands of Yes activists of all ages and backgrounds and genders and the atmosphere was amazing; the atmosphere was an atmosphere of hope and excitement and possibility; the atmosphere was, finally, after so many years of despair and misrepresentation by politicians, the atmosphere of a people that have united to take their future into their own hands. This has been the most amazing thing to witness – and I’m so proud to have been a part of it.

I’m voting Yes on Thursday.

I’m voting Yes because I don’t believe that working-class and anti-capitalist solidarity is contained by borders. A Yes vote is not a vote to leave the rest of the UK to its fate. A Yes vote is proof of people power in the face of corporate- and state-sponsored propaganda. A Yes vote is proof that grassroots movements can actually make a difference, and that ordinary citizens can stand up to take on vested interests, and win. I’ve marched in solidarity with Palestinians, with the victims of global austerity, with people affected by climate change around the world – this isn’t going to change in the event of Scottish independence. It’s going to be a source of inspiration around the world. My hope would be that a yes vote will inspire people who have been oppressed and downtrodden by the ConDem’s austerity throughout the rest of the UK to use Scotland as an example and get involved, get active, and fight for a better future.

I’m voting Yes because an independent Scotland has the power to force the UK’s hand when it comes to Trident – and refusing to host Trident on Scottish soil will almost certainly be the final push that Westminster needs to give in to international pressure to get rid of its outdated, useless weapon of mass destruction.

I’m voting Yes because Scotland has the potential to be a world leader on fighting climate change, and the volume of the Green Yes voices across the country is high, and they have the potential to influence policy and the outcome of a constitution that could enshrine protection of the environment and commitment to a low-carbon future. It’s not about the North Sea oil – it’s not like Westminster offer a radically environmentally-friendly position on the issue. It’s about the potential to create change, and there’s far more of that in the case of independence.

I’m voting Yes because I’m bisexual, and an independent Scotland would enshrine my right to fall in love with who I fall in love with, in a written constitution that homophobic political parties would not have the power to edit at will. The rise of UKIP across the UK and the platform that they’re given to voice homophobic hate speech has cemented this Yes for me: I vote for freedom against persecution, or I vote for the possibility that my rights are going to be crushed.

I’m voting Yes because I don’t think that a Yes vote is the answer. I’m voting Yes because it’s only the beginning – and the chance to actually build a better society, to actually cause a shock to that old boys’ club of Westminster, to show that, sometimes, money and power and scaremongering just isn’t enough to suppress spirit and hope. It’s not going to be easy or smooth. But the status quo isn’t easy or smooth either: just ask somebody depending on food banks, or a victim of the bedroom tax or ATOS tests.

I’m voting Yes. But whatever the result, it’s impossible to deny that something has happened in Scotland. Something powerful. And it’s not something that’s going to go away in a hurry.

Image via National Collective of the Night For Scotland gig on Sunday evening.