A wee guest post today from former Better Nation editor Malc Harvey on the various ways the public might be engaged with the you-know-what in October 2014. Thanks Malc!
In a little under 24 months’ time, the Scottish population will make the biggest political decision it has faced, probably for 300-odd years. The question, as framed by the Scottish Government (and formalised by the Edinburgh Agreement between it and the UK Government) will be a solitary one – currently to be put to voters as “Do you agree that Scotland should be an independent country?”.
A clear choice then, between a future as an independent state or a continuing as a component nation of a 300 year old union. The Scottish public have two years to make their decision. Plenty time for debate, for consideration of the numerous issues contained within this single question.
Whatever your perspective on the constitutional question – to stay or go, to embrace independence or defend the Union – you cannot deny that the decision itself presents us with an opportunity. An opportunity to engage the public – the disengaged, disinclined, cynical and potentially apathetic public – in conversations about where we are going as a nation, a country, a state, a society.
This opportunity has already been grasped. We’ve had the Scottish Government’s National Conversation and, concurrently, their opposition’s Calman Commission– public consultations which, for the most part, failed to capture the public’s imagination (or, indeed, engage with one another). Limited public consultation yes, but progress too, for A National Conversation laid the groundwork in the last parliamentary session for the referendum process in this one, and the Calman Commission progressed the powers of the Scottish Parliament (albeit in a limited manner) while at the same time engaging Labour, Conservative and Liberal Democrat politicians and activists on the issue of Scotland’s constitutional future.
Internal party positions have shifted; policy commissions have come and gone as, too, have party leaders. These are expected actions, consequences of the changing scope of the political scenery. That parties have been engaged in the constitutional debate is not in any way surprising.
They have not, however, been the sole actors in this process.
The Electoral Reform Society (for whom I’ve been interning) have an exciting programme of events comprising an inquiry into the future of Scottish Democracy. The Constitutional Commission is holding public meetings, engaging the public on the idea of how a new – written – constitution for Scotland might be developed. The Devo Plus group – with supporters from each of Labour, the Conservatives and the Liberal Democrats – have published a second report, outlining a third constitutional option for Scotland, enhancing the powers of the Scottish Parliament but retaining membership within the United Kingdom (an option which will not be on the ballot paper in 2014, but appears to be the favoured option of the Scottish population). And the University of Dundee recently launched a new programme called Five Million Questions which seeks to link academic research with public concerns about the constitutional debate, providing clarity to an oftentimes complex and partisan discussion.
These are but four organisations engaged in public discussions on the constitutional debate. There are countless more voluntary sector organisations, private enterprises, churches, university societies and many more who are taking the time to think about these issues. Sure, in some cases, this isn’t formalised, there’s no roundtable discussion or deep consultation process – often it might just be a chat over a pint or a passing conversation at a coffee morning. But – slowly – the Scottish public is engaging itself in this discussion, involving itself in the process, considering the impact each of their options might have on their lives.
This is a sign of a healthy democracy. I almost wrote “healthy society” there, but that’s a step too far, even for this almost entirely optimistic piece. We have two years to figure out what we want from our political classes, in constitutional terms at least. For two years, our political classes – and our civic society – might well have a willing audience. They might be interested in finding out why you think running Scotland from Edinburgh is better than from London, or why a Union of 63 million is better than one of 5 million. They might be interested in other ideas about democracy – the need for a written constitution perhaps, or whether 32 local authorities is too many or too few. Ask them. Find out. Engage with them. Take the opportunity.
The referendum “campaign” hasn’t officially begun yet, and won’t until mid-2014. But the signs from the main political protagonists thus far are not good. Petty partisan politicking has been the order of the day. Discrediting politicians through personal attacks, making hay out of blunders, a lack of clarity in strategy – or, indeed, a lack of strategy entirely – has quickly overtaken any positive case either side has attempted to make. This needs to change – and soon.
The public ARE interested in this discussion. We need our political classes to treat them with a bit more respect, to avoid the partisan nonsense, and to provide information for what will be a momentous decision for our nation.
For while that decision is still 24 months away, the clock is ticking…