On the 18th of September, 1.6 million people in Scotland voted to break away from the United Kingdom. When asked, about three quarters cited dissatisfaction with Westminster politics as one of their main reasons for voting Yes to independence. No big surprise there: just a quarter of the population here is happy with how the current government is running the country, and our electoral system keeps electing tory governments in spite of how the Scottish population votes.
Evidently, we felt that being shot of the political system we’re saddled with, once and for all, was worth all of the economic and social risks and costs associated with breaking up a country and starting many of its institutions from scratch. That means a lot – independence was never going to be easy, and change is almost always scary.
But this is a country where less than a fifth of the population trusts politicians to tell the truth, where the electoral system is set up in such a way that politicians can safely ignore the wishes of the great majority of its citizens if it garners favour with the few who live in ‘swing seats’, and where it has been widely taken for granted that a vote for anyone but the two or three main parties is a ‘wasted’ vote, since the first-past-the-post system makes it so unlikely anyone else will be elected. Less than two thirds of the country even bothered to vote in the 2010 general election; of those who did, most voted against the Conservatives. Only 36% voted for them, country-wide, and only 16.7% in Scotland – far, far behind the 45% who went for Scottish independence, although the media’s been describing that as an ‘overwhelming defeat’. Even if you add up all the Scottish votes for both of the parties ruling us from Westminster, it only comes to 878,326 – not much more than half of the 1,617,989 who voted for independence. It is pretty clear that the Westminster system does not deliver governments, or policies, that most of us particularly want to vote for.
I say all this not to suggest that we were robbed, although some demographics, particularly on social media, were so pro-Yes that many people were genuinely shocked by the result. My point is that this level of engagement is extraordinary in British politics, and we must not allow it to be a one-off.
Less than 64% of people in Scotland voted at all in the last General Election, and only 39.1% in the latest round of council elections. We are very used to politicians and the media bemoaning this as ‘voter apathy‘, as if people didn’t vote because they don’t care, but the 85% turnout for the referendum suggests that overwhelmingly, people will turn out to vote if we think our vote will make a difference. The referendum didn’t just get people voting – it got us debating, researching and imagining. We started taking seriously the idea that that we could help shape the future of our country, and probably should.
In light of that, it makes perfect sense that the SNP and the Scottish Greens have both seen massive surges in membership since the referendum, with both parties more than quadrupling their numbers in the space of less than a month. All of that energy, all of that creativity and hope had to go somewhere – and it was hardly going to go to the big Westminster parties, who all opposed independence with such inspiring slogans as ‘IT’S NOT WORTH THE RISK.’ The ‘Better Together’ campaign started out with that nice, cuddly title, but it turned out to be almost the only glimmer of positivity in a campaign overwhelmingly focused on killing aspirations and playing up fears.
We might object that there are also some fairly alarming risks associated with being ruled by a parliament elected through a hopelessly undemocratic system, dominated by three parties who still take broadly neoliberal economic assumptions for granted in spite of all the evidence against them, most of whose MPs come from profoundly privileged backgrounds and won’t challenge the great transfer of wealth from poor to rich that they like to call ‘austerity’. But these are familiar risks. Better the devil you know, right?
So most of us voted against Scotland becoming an independent country. This was always the likeliest result, whatever social media might have led us to believe – change really is scary, and before the referendum campaign started, the polls showed overwhelming opposition to independence. Factor in all three of the biggest parties currently in Westminster, along with almost the entire mainstream media and several large corporations working to convince us the economy would be terribly imperilled by independence, and scoring as much as 45% of the vote looks like a remarkable achievement.
Independence, for now, cannot be our route to a more just and democratic society. But for many of us it was always a means to an end, not the ultimate prize. We will not stop fighting for more power to be in the hands of the people who are most affected by it; we will not stop fighting for accountability in government, for a fairer economy, for a system and a public discourse which acknowledge that a better world is possible.
Because here’s the thing: with enough of us fighting for it, a better world really is unmistakeably possible. If we don’t keep fighting for it, a much worse world seems pretty much inevitable.