Sometimes politics can surprise us. Sometimes it can even be a good surprise. After over 50 years in campaigning, it was refreshing to experience unprecedented positive political engagement. The dynamic that developed in the run up to the Scottish independence referendum in 2014 has given us a new political landscape in Scotland. It was different from the 1979 and 1997 devolution referendums and it was different from general election campaigns. How? Why? And can this be reproduced?
In a period of long-term decline in election turnouts, this referendum dramatically bucked the trend with an 85% turnout. In some more prosperous areas it was 95%, while in poorer areas it was more typically 75% – but this was 30% higher than in other elections. The two previous referendums had 64% and 60% turnouts.
Early in the campaign, we knew something different was happening when public meetings in places not noted for political activism were getting audiences four times bigger than expected. This revival of the public meeting was replicated throughout Scotland, and this and much other activity was often led not by seasoned activists but people new to politics. This engagement went beyond the organised activities of meetings, street stalls and leafleting. Many people on both sides of the debate found themselves enjoying discussion in shops, offices, trains and schools (16 year olds got the vote). To an unusual extent people were talking politics.
Interesting things were happening in the media too. Every newspaper in Scotland except one Sunday paper backed the No side and broadcasting largely took their lead news stories (though not feature programmes) from the press. The independence case was greeted with howls of derision by the press for two years. Readers outside Scotland might not have noticed this. The response of Yes supporters was to produce alternatives. A range of new websites and blogs sprung up and social media played a key role.
New groups largely organised themselves: women, lawyers, teachers, academics, LGBT people and others developed their own campaign networks. National Collective was set up by people with an arts background and produced clever, witty multi-media material. Common Weal emerged in this context because of the need to offer a fresh but practical and researched vision for reform expressed in fresh language. We realised that voters would only take the risk of radical change if they could see a credible alternative. It was a ‘think and do tank’ combining policy research with bringing together left, environmental and equalities campaigners from different parties. Its ‘all of us first’ slogan was warmly received and typified the search to present long-established values in fresh images and words. Much of this activity would never have achieved this buoyancy without the referendum.
Can this activism be replicated in the political context of England? Recent events suggest there is significant dissatisfaction with existing structures and policies. But as yet there is not clarity around issues or how change can be achieved.
There were three key factors in Scotland. First, the recognition that there was something very big at stake. With independence Scotland could get rid of nuclear weapons and develop different welfare, employment, taxation, industrial, international policies. Second, the idea that power lay directly with the people – rich and poor. And third, a diverse, local and non-traditional leadership emerged and provided real energy for the Yes side.
In England work needs to be done regionally and nationally to identify the most important issues and alternative policies that can stand up to serious scrutiny. Presenting people with routes to change that they can understand and are credible is a big challenge. At least in the 1990s it was possible to see English regionalism as one such route and from the outside my view is that this needs to be revived and an attack made on the exclusive emphasis on cities rather than integrated regions with new democratic structures. Many reformers in England appear to have given up on doing serious work on this and critiquing the over-development of the south east with its damaging housing and environmental problems.
One lesson from the Scottish campaign on which it is realistic to build in England is communication strategy. Almost all the mainstream media are likely to be a hindrance. By all means try to use them effectively but assume the efforts will be largely futile, as we found. We have to do our own thing.
Common Weal has set up a professional news service, Common Space. We have a number of other well-supported opinion sites. These are financed by small donations. If Scotland can resource these, England should be able to do much better. If this is done well, in a few years they could reach a big audience. But we have to come back to the message – there is no point in the medium without a coherent, inspiring message.
Isobel Lindsay is a Scottish independence campaigner