Scotland: a story of engagement, not divorce

19 Sep

There aren’t many things that get me up at 4.30 in the morning, but the future of Scotland is certainly one of them. Turns out I timed it perfectly – results rolling in regularly from throughout Scotland, enabling the overall result to be forecast within an hour. Scotland has said a decisive ‘No’ and the UK remains intact – there is still blue in the Union Jack this morning.

No matter which side of this debate you were on, the level of civic engagement brought to this vote is a spectacular victory for Scottish people and the democratic process. People cared about the outcome of this referendum and they were proud to stand up – and to queue – to be counted. The last couple of weeks has seen us gripped in a political story of unusual passion and intensity, and rather than turning away towards apathy, the Scottish public – all of it – engaged. From the 16 and 17 year olds voting for the first time, through a surge in registration throughout deprived communities, to pensioners turning out in high numbers, all of Scotland wanted its say. And 85% turnout is unprecedented in the UK, where disillusionment has led to relatively low levels of participation in recent elections.

So what now? What’s really interesting in the fall-out from Scotland’s decision is that it cannot be isolated from the wider context of UK democracy. Over 1.5 million people voted ‘yes’ and they have to be heard and included in the decisions made from here. David Cameron acknowledged this in his response to the outcome of the referendum this morning. He outlined a programme not just to deliver further devolution of powers to Scotland, but the address democratic deficits throughout the UK. England must have its say, at the level of regions and cities. Devolution, one might say, is coming home. It is quite a feat for Scots to redefine English politics through a demonstration of the power of participation. But perhaps we should not be too surprised – after all, the Enlightenment that heralded modernity in culture, science and civic life did grow up in Scotland and show its ability to be an engine for innovation for the wider world.

In opening up the question of devolution for all, the Prime Minister has acknowledged the strength of politics when everyone takes part. The challenge now is to deliver this throughout the UK, so that unheard voices get their say in their affairs. A couple of weeks ago I wrote about the patronising tone of parts of the Better Together campaign – if the unheard are really to be brought to closer the table this tone must stop, and moves be made towards genuine inclusion throughout the UK. The Scottish vote showed that people rejected the complexities of navigating EU membership and currency in an independent country locked in an uncertain relationship with the rest of the UK. Now the ‘no’ vote raises the complexities of representing the needs of local cultures, communities and markets whilst maintaining a meaningful UK–level government. Already the constitutional experts are pointing to the many complications of who represents whom in what way, whilst working to represent their constituencies on the one hand and make decisions for the whole of the UK on the other. Is the rest of the UK ready to participate with the passion and purpose of Scots? I hope so – engagement is a promise for the future.

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