Archive | February, 2014

People are actually talking about politics!

18 Feb

One of the great things about the Scottish independence referendum campaign is that it has encouraged people to talk about politics – often in a serious and informed way. Politics, on this island, is often a marginal topic of conversation. Sure, people express political gripes, but these are often facsimiles of newspaper headlines and rarely amount to a sustained interest or anything resembling a conversation. We have all been trapped in the back of a cab as the driver lets rip with ‘All politicians are the same. They’re all in it for the money. It’s all one big gravy train, blah, blah, blah … Now, I’m no racist, but all those immigrants getting benefits …’

But over the past few months – on the morning dog walk, in pubs and restaurants, on trains, and in queues at the Post Office – I have noticed that more and more people are talking about the referendum. People who do not normally post about politics on Facebook have taken to posting status updates related to the referendum and independence. Many of the comments are informed and relate to fundamental questions about the organisation of the state and relations between citizens, the state, business and welfare. Normally these fundamental questions are buried amidst the humdrum of everyday life. In most of Europe, we live in societies in which basic constitutional issues are taken for granted: they were settled some time ago and politics rarely ventures onto fundamental ground. We are often told that we have a constitutional ‘settlement’ and thus big questions are settled and over and done with.

Of course, this is nonsense. Societies and their institutions are living things – dynamic and ever changing. Or at least they should be. It seems bizarre that we think in terms of a social ‘contract’ or a constitutional ‘settlement’ that cannot be renegotiated as societies change. Only rarely do we get the opportunity to discuss such fundamental issues. Elections every four or five years for Xerox political parties tend to replicate the status quo. It is rare for election campaigns to feature in-depth discuss of policy issues. That is why the Scottish independence campaign seems so valuable. It has created space in which people can talk about the real structural issues that shape our lives (e.g., defence, currency, the role of welfare in society, symbolic allegiances).

Whether one is for or against Scottish independence, one can only conclude that political debate is a thoroughly good thing. While the pro and anti-independence camps trade barbed criticisms of each other there is no one lying dead on the streets. The debate is reasonably civilized and there is no hint of the violence or xenophobia that we have seen in other secessionist campaigns.

Lots of questions reverberate around the independence debate (not least will people vote for independence or not?). One key question relates to the long-term impact the independence debate will have on the nature of politics. Is the public engagement with politics a trend that will impact on how issues are debated and how political parties interact with people? It is likely that much of the public political engagement is referendum-specific. But, to a certain extent, the campaign is letting a genie out of the bottle. It is encouraging people to debate serious issues, and to know that they have an opportunity to make fundamental change. Once empowered, people might think twice before going back to politics as usual.