So on September 18th Scotland decided – decisively – not to become an independent country. Over 80% of voters turned out, and 55% of them voted No. The final weeks of campaigning, discussing, researching resulted in a victory for the democratic process, in the highest turnout since 1959. People are no longer disengaged from politics, and turned out in their millions to demonstrate that they cared enough about the future of their country to let their voices be heard.
But are the politicians listening? There was much talk on election night of ‘a new kind of politics’ about ‘a need for change’ and for politicians in Scotland and Westminster to listen to the voices of the people who wanted change.
It was a challenging and exciting evening as a social policy academic to watch the events unfold, particularly to see civic society taking to the polling booths with an unprecedented enthusiasm and energy.
But the disappointment on the faces of the Yes campaigners spoke volumes: the campaign had prided itself on being a grassroots broad coalition movement, bringing together nationalists, environmentalists, feminists, disability activists, pro welfare campaigners and those disenchanted with Westminster style politics. A coalition willing to campaign for a fairer future for Scotland. The bitterness of some of the post-results social media discussions revealed that they felt that No voters had voted “for austerity, for poverty, for inequality” and that this was a “triumph of fear over hope”.
But the huge turnout and the civic engagement in the process showed comprehensively that there IS an appetite for politics that is not dominated by politicians and elites, but reflects the concerns and priorities of ordinary citizens. Scotland still faces the same challenges that concerned people on both the Yes and No sides as it did before the referendum: poverty, gender inequality, health inequality, a perceived dissonance between politics, particularly Westminster politics, and civic society.
So is it possible to capture that civic engagement and turn it into a positive force for Scotland’s future?
If there had been a Yes vote, there would have been a clear path to a more participatory style of governance in Scotland. The White Paper on the possible constitutional settlement explicitly promised that the third sector and individual citizens would be involved in the process of drawing up an interim constitution. The Scottish Government has always engaged with interest groups and civic society more comprehensively than its Westminster counterpart and there were clear indications that this path would continue to be followed in the negotiations up to full independence.
However, we now have a No vote, and all the main Westminster political parties are scrambling to offer Scotland a new deal on further devolution of powers and constitutional reform. However, there were no clear commitments from anyone that this would involve civic society, or be done in a participatory way. Instead there was much talk of how party leaders could ensure buy-in from their political parties to ensure a swift settlement.
So there is now a real challenge for both the politicians and civic society: is it possible to put aside political differences, the sting of losing and the thrill of winning, and work together for a fairer, better, more prosperous Scotland – and the rest of the UK? Will the genie of people power be put back in the bottle by a political process that focuses on constitutional and legal changes that are essentially about moving power from one set of politicians to another? Or will civic society grasp the nettle and take this window of opportunity to REALLY challenge politics and the policy process – and if they do, are the politicians willing and able to listen and change?
Scotland does not need to be independent to work for a fairer future for its citizens: it would have given them some potentially powerful policy levers to achieve change, but it was never going to be a magic bullet to utopia. So, with the option of independence now off the table, can a new kind of civic-led politics emerge? Can society seize the day and work for its vision of Scotland’s future?