Sunday, 31 August 2014

The Scottish independence referendum and the nature of political debate

This post was prompted by the quite extraordinarily patronising Better Together advert of a woman, effectively telling the electorate that she didn't understand any of the issues in the debate and was therefore going to vote "No." There has been uproar in the Scottish Labour party that Danny Alexander let this advert through, but it got me thinking about broader questions of the nature of political debate.

I am just old enough to remember a time when politics was about impassioned ideologues addressing mass meetings to rail against the iniquities of capitalism or the unworkability of socialism. Politics was, almost by definition, about big ideas and grand concepts. You voted for an MP because he or she (mostly he back then, if the truth be told) shared your ideals- spoke to your deepest convictions about what is right and proper and true.

It was actually one of the most impassioned ideologues of them all who changed all that. Margaret Thatcher had the grand vision (I use the term loosely) and the overarching principles (even more loosely this time) and went straight for the big changes, rather than tinkering round the edges. Yet probably this disconcerting sound recording tells you all you need to know about her big ideas. They were in the end not grand at all but utterly mundane- even petty. Her political vision was founded on self interest. Her "no such thing as society" line was precisely about that- reducing the grandness of the post-war social project to a simple question of what is best for you and your family in the immediate future.

And in political terms this has been her legacy even more than the subsequent drift to the right or the madness unleashed by her and Reagan's conversion of the financial markets into vast casinos. It is almost axiomatic now that politicians need to stay away from big questions of principle. They bore and confuse the electorate, received wisdom seems now to say. Interpret everything in terms of how it will affect Essex man, or Worcester woman, or one of an increasing congregation of 'ordinary people.'  People will become politically engaged once they see the relevance of what you are talking about to their own lives, and not before.

Of course this hasn't really worked at all. Levels of political engagement have plummeted to a quite embarrassing degree. Turnout in the police and crime commissioner elections is so low that a candidate has a significant advantage if he/she has a big family. So long as their family turns out to vote of course. Basically, no one really believes that political engagement is going to make any direct difference to any of the specifics of their own lives, so they don't bother voting. And who can blame them? A prospective MP may base their entire campaign on protecting a local hospital, despite being in a party that is committed to reducing the number of local hospitals.

And whether they recognise that the reality of government is much more complex than the simplicity of electoral campaigns, or whether they just think politicians are a load of lying twats, the electorate have learned pretty well that political engagement and petty self-interest are more or less incompatible. Occasionally a single issue will arise that politicians can jump on, whipping up petty self-interest into a simulacrum of principled politics, and that is what has led to the ludicrous rise in UKIP support, but I guarantee that the turnout at the next election will still be under 50%.

Yet in Scotland, it seems, something very odd indeed has started happening. Alex Salmond has suggested that turnout in the referendum may reach 80%, and whilst he has his own reasons for saying that I have certainly been made aware of a quite extraordinary degree of engagement in the debate amongst ordinary voters. And what has triggered this hugely uncharacteristic level of interest in an issue that is all about politics and the constitution? Well not principally narrow self-interest it seems, which is where the Better Together campaign is suddenly beginning to flounder.

For those who haven't been following the debate, the Better Together camp have pretty much been telling the Scottish electorate that if they vote for independence they will lose the pound sterling, will be kicked out of the EU, will be saddled with debt and will no longer be supported by the rest of the UK. So far better not risk any of that- better just follow the example of the woman in the advert. Don't worry your head about the big issues, just vote No.

Only it seems that the Scottish electorate WANT to engage with the big political issues: about nuclear disarmament, and social welfare and reducing inequality, and finding alternatives to unbridled free-market philosophies. It's like something out of the 70s for God's sake!

Of course I am not pretending that Scotland is some sort of Utopia. If they do vote for independence then there is every chance that once the euphoria dies down the political classes will descend into a series of very unseemly cat-fights. And Scots, deprived of a Tory-voting England to rebel against might start drifting rightwards themselves. And quite possibly some demagogic Scottish Thatcher will at some point whip up all their basest instincts.

But none of that is the point of this post. The point is that it turns out that the way to get people genuinely and passionately politically engaged is not to remind them of their own narrow self-interest. It is the very opposite. It is about raising the really big questions: what sort of country do we want to be? what are our core principles? what unites and what divides us? And raising them with a genuine sense that if people really take these questions seriously then there is a chance that we could actually do something about answering them. Collectively not individually. As a nation, not as an assemblage of self-interested individuals.

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