In one week the people of Scotland decide their constitutional future, but they have been discussing much more than that, they have been debating how to make Scotland a good society. People who want a much more equal, democratic and sustainable society, are divided. Is it better achieved within a United Kingdom, where we work together, or should Scotland seize the chance to break away from the Tories and the City of London and not just build their own good society but also be a beacon for rUK?
The implications of a Yes or No are profound. Compass has avoided telling anyone what to think and wont start now. It’s for the people of Scotland to decide, but the route to that decision is proving to be incredibly instructive for the kind of politics Compass is trying to practise and promote.
It is predicted that up to 80% of the nation will vote. That would be a million people who have never voted before! Over months and years the people of Scotland have been speaking and listening to each other, reading books, articles, and tweets whilst attending huge meetings. A big conversation is taking place. Politics has come alive because there is a real decision to be made. The people of Scotland, through the referendum vote, have been handed agency and they have taken it with relish. This is exhilarating.
Undoubtedly it has fuelled enthusiasm and passion on both sides. On the No side it’s provided a space to talk about solidarity, internationalism and class for the first time in a long time. Inevitably perhaps both campaigns have relied on fear; of perpetual Tory rule and the collapse of the NHS to the currency and European Union. The fear card has also been played by the banks who threaten to up sticks and walk if the people don’t vote in line with the interests of capital.
The really exciting developments have emerged outside of the official SNP Yes campaign: Common Weal, National Collective, Bella Caledonia, Radical Independence Campaign, Women for Independence and a myriad of cultural and civil society organisations with reach way beyond conventional politics. Together they represent the politics of a more modern left – not a narrow nationalism.
Despite being allied to the official Yes campaign, these groups have not attempted to manufacture meaning for the people. They never really tried to frame a debate or sell a message in the top down manner of the party led campaigns. Instead they went to the issues that people cared about: low wages, the attacks on social security, the growing and obvious inequality and helped people to talk together and make meaning out of their own situation. They provided the platforms so people could take power while much of No and the traditional elements of Yes have sought to keep power by telling people what to think. If politics is to mean anything in the future it needs to look more like these outliers.
Of course it hasn’t all been good. Instances of intimidation and bullying by anyone in politics are to be utterly rejected. Openness, respect, tolerance and empathy are the means and ends of a good society.
If Scotland votes Yes then this must only be the start, not just of the transfer of all power and resources to Scotland but throughout Scotland and especially to the least powerful and privileged. All of us, across the UK, have an interest in an independent Scotland being as much like Denmark as possible, so we get a better Scotland and a beacon of progressive light that shines on rUK.
If the people of Scotland vote No then the momentum towards devolution and democratic reform must be maintained and the energy, vitality and capacity built in Scotland must not go to waste. The responsibility for that lies with all of us.
Whatever the outcome of the vote, two things really matter. The first is that the result is respected. Democracy and the will of the people are sacrosanct. Second, that people are given agency again so that they can determine their future. Despite denying space on the ballot paper for the option of devo-max, the state and the establishment were forced by one opinion poll and the movement behind it to concede power. This serves to remind us that nothing of any value is ever given away – it has to be struggled and fought for. It reminds us too of the adaptive nature of the state and the establishment to shift ground when they have to.
Next Thursday the people of Scotland will speak. They will decide on a constitutional proposition, but the people of Scotland on both sides and those yet to take a side have a bigger question in mind: ‘What sort of country do we want to live in?’ Many people in England, Wales and Northern Ireland want to ask the same question but a movement for change has not yet grown because the sense of agency has gone. This loss of hope and impotence is demonstrated through the millions that don’t vote and in growing support for UKIP. It’s been demonstrated by the failure of Wales to secure more devolution, despite cross party agreement. This democratic decline only continues to undermine the already frail legitimacy of the British State.
If it is to remain relevant that state must be reformed along with the party political system that supports it and the finance system that directs it. The electoral system, the use of referendum on key issues, a written constitution, devolution of power and resources to the powerless in communities, cities and regions, abolition of the Lords and the end to the attacks on trade unions, charities, civil society, civil liberties and the complacency, inertia and disregard for the weakest and inequality that creates despair must be swept away. For all this the least we need is a People’s Constitutional Convention that doesn’t just make demands the political class can ignore but builds a movement to deliver on them.
The people of Scotland, the best of Yes and No, are outriders for the rest of us. They are showing us how politics can be done when a proper invitation and opening is made. They are giving us hope and showing us the way.