From twitter to town halls

Published: 28 July 2014

James Mitchell looks at how the referendum has captured the attention of voters on social media and at public events across the country, asking whether this might indicate an increase in civic engagement beyond the referendum.

Almost every public policy has unforeseen, even unforeseeable consequences. And so too with the Scottish referendum. The expectation amongst most commentators was that the referendum would be a raucous affair in which positions were adopted in classic British adversarial manner. And so it has proved to be. The heat generated is criticised by commentators who themselves thrive on and contribute to the over-simplification of issues.

Much is made of the blogosphere and twitterati where commentary is shrill and often angry.  The oddest aspect of this is that much of what previously would have been ignored is widely reported. The equivalent of letters to the editors of the press, written in proverbial green ink, now get coverage by virtue of appearing in social media. The shriller, more extreme and ourageous the greater the chance of making it into the ‘mainstream’ media. That does not mean that all social media is hopelessly biased, ill-informed and angry. Much that is informed, intelligent and thoughtful but this rarely gets much coverage in the ‘mainstream media’.

But get away from the mainstream media, social media and the Holyrood Village – and this village is less a geographic place than a mindset – and a very different set of debates have been happening. Note the plural – there have been debates, not one debate. Across Scotland, public meetings have been attracting large turnouts and reports – unquantified and under-researched (though there are efforts to address this)– of what amounts to a democratic renewal. Early reports that village halls were packed seemed unlikely exaggerations but have proved accurate. These have not been limited to events in which a well-known name was speaking. Additionally, may groups and interests have insinuated themselves into the debates successfully – none more so than the Our Islands Our Futures campaign – and raised issues that have found a place in the debate on Scotland’s future. It has taken some time for many commentators to become aware of these developments, which may tell us much about the nature of the Holyrood Village.

Indeed, the impression that is given (or hypothesis worth testing, if expressed in social science terms, based on unsystematic but reasonably extensive observation) is that the meetings tend to follow very different formats depending on who is speaking. Big name events follow a fairly familiar format and structure. A warm up act or two is followed by the main act, with a heavy emphasis on attacking opponents – though this does vary with each campaign group. Little is said that is truly new or unexpected though very recent developments are invariably incorporated into speeches. There is a conscious effort – sometimes all to obviously conscious – to stick to a ‘narrative’. A selected group of statistics are preferred by advocates and opponents of independence. Some experienced politicians can still make attendance at public meetings worthwhile but after you have seen one, many others just seem the same.

But a very different experience awaits those attending community meetings, whether organised locally by a campaign group or sponsored by some independent group. Speakers are not always polished performers but are all the better for it. Speeches do not follow a set pattern, sometimes no discernible pattern at all. Whether by design or otherwise, there appears little limit to the issues raised by speakers and certainly by audiences. The referendum question is often lost sight of for periods though questions and discussions always come back round to it.

Of course, it is difficult to know who is attending these meetings. It is occasionally contended – though a contention without evidence – that this is just the politically active or already aligned public. The limited evidence suggests that this varies significantly. But there is no doubt that there are far more people attending public meetings than normally do so – if these are politically active then the activist base has become more active. This still constitutes a very small part of the electorate but we may reasonably surmise that this reflects a wider phenomenon of increased political engagement. There is at least reason to investigate the extent to which more people have become more engaged and the extent of this.

But what does this all amount to? Could this civic engagement, this democratic renewal come to a juddering halt once the result is declared? Is it possible that lessons might be learned in a polity that has worried over turnout in elections and civic engagement? Is it possible that this constitutional moment might be captured, might even prove to be more significant than the results of the referendum itself?

James Mitchell will be signing his latest book "The Scottish Question" at The Independence Referendum: Two Historical Perspectives this Thursday.

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