Saturday, September 20, 2014

Has Scotland shown us how to reinvigorate democray?

There hasn't been wanting commentators and ordinary joes to tell us that the extraordinary turnout in the Scottish referendum has shown us the way to a better, more invigorated democratic system.

Janet Street Porter, one of the more emotional of these, says in her paean of praise to the Scottish people that "You showed us what commitment and passion are all about and given the rest of the UK a wake-up call."  Mind you, Janet also noted how wonderful it was that "people who don’t agree can accept a result and move forward together", suggesting she hasn't been watching events in Glasgow too closely.

The reality, though, is that this is an exceptional rather than indicative democratic event.  Rarely will people get to vote on the very nature of their country, or to bring a new country into existence, so it is hardly surprising that the interest and turnout should have been high.  Scotland has hardly been a shining example of democratic activism in any of its other elections however.  Turnout for their own parliamentary elections in 2011 was a mere 50% (it's on this miserable turnout that the SNP won their victory).  It was slightly up for the apparently hated Westminster elections in 2010 at 63.8%, and even for the first ever elections to a Scottish Parliament in 1999 it was only 58%.  So let's rest on praising the Scots as great democrats and consider that this was an exceptional circumstance.  

The referendum offers us no answers about the participation crisis in British democracy.  Indeed, it is instructive to note, as politicians start discussing regionalism as a way forward for a more balanced UK polity, that even in Scotland, where bile towards Westminster was at its height, voters have still preferred to turn out and vote for a parliament that no longer runs their domestic services than they do for their own home-grown assembly. 

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