Lesley Riddoch: Business as usual not good enough

As Scots' interest in politics surges, the Lib Dem conference in Glasgow fails to catch the mood. Picture: PA
As Scots' interest in politics surges, the Lib Dem conference in Glasgow fails to catch the mood. Picture: PA
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WE have the appetite to build a vigorous democracy before the Westminster and Holyrood elections, writes Lesley Riddoch

SOMETHING’S happening in post indyref Scotland.

After most ballots, the relatively small cadre of party workers goes home, voters move on and interest in the minutiae of politics quickly subsides. There is no sign that such “business as usual” will resume in Scotland any time soon. The SNP’s membership stands at 75,000 plus. The Greens have trebled their membership and the Scottish Socialists have recruited 2,600 new post-referendum members.

Unionist parties also report a surge – but membership totals are secret and turnout at this weekend’s Lib Dem Conference in Glasgow was patchy. The Yes parties may have lost the war but seem to be winning the peace.

Non-party based movements are also thriving. Women for Independence saw a thousand members gather in Perth this weekend, destroying many bits of received wisdom in the process. Women are usually the least active and self-organising part of society – not now. Central Belt folk are usually loathe to travel north – not this time. Activists usually demand tub-thumping speeches – but this gathering featured relatively few “sages on the stage” and more small group discussions.

Common Weal, National Collective, Radical Independence and other ad hoc groupings have all experienced the same thing: massive meetings attended by well-informed people who expect politics to mean engagement, not lofty speechifying from a self-appointed political class.

No wonder there has been a call in the SNP deputy leadership race for the very hierarchical party to change and involve activists in the policy-making process. A failure to respond to Scotland’s recent democratic revolution could leave the SNP looking like parents who’ve smugly mastered PlayStation while their kids have quietly moved on to Minecraft (Google it) and are well behind the curve.

The question is whether activists would achieve more for Scottish democracy by refusing to be assimilated.

Over recent months, hundreds of thousands of Scots have reached far beyond their political comfort zones to educate themselves, canvas others, attend political meetings, wear badges, seek out new media sources, speak in public, book halls, fund-raise, back crowd-sourced projects and join grassroots movements and political parties. This profound change in everyday behaviour has affected far more than the three per cent of Scots who are paid-up party members. Knowledge of governance and taxation systems is at an all-time high, there is an appetite for yet more difficult detail and an air of mobilisation, readiness and anticipation of the Westminster and Holyrood elections.

Scots are like advanced motorists who once called on the AA for every breakdown but are now determined to diagnose and fix problems themselves. It’s heady stuff.

Of course no-one can be certain how long it will all last. But I’d guess that heightened public interest and an increased capacity to intervene in the political process will be features of Scottish public life until a robust devolution settlement with tax raising powers is delivered. That’s not just a legacy of 18 September, nor sour grapes from defeat-denying Yes campaigners – it’s part of something bigger.

Something that drove tens of thousands of non-SNP members to campaign for independence in the first place. Something that connects most members of the 45 and 55 per cent camps. Something that’s driving two-thirds of Scots to demand full control over taxes and welfare in Scotland. It’s a deep-seated desire amongst most Scots to stabilise society by modernising and democratising it. All this in ways considered beyond the pale in the “Mother of Parliaments” but entirely normal in the rest of Northern Europe.

That desire has grown stronger as a result of the referendum campaign. Look at it this way. We found that 45 per cent of voters were quite prepared to set up an independent nation in the teeth of predictions that jobs would go, headquarters would move south, the pound would become a foreign currency, food prices would rise and pensions would be worthless.

At least a further 10 per cent gave the idea serious consideration. Are such threat-hardened citizens likely to be deterred from backing a robust Land Reform Act because it looks contentious? Are they likely to be satisfied with a Community Empowerment Bill that leaves Scotland with the most disempowered tier of community governance in Europe? Are they likely to view a 38 per cent vote in council elections as normal – or watch the promised childcare revolution being put on hold? I doubt it.

Because none of these challenges sound as formidable as they once did. Scots have been invigorated by this big, robust referendum debate. The rest of the UK has not. That’s why a clash of political cultures still seems inevitable to me. Scots seem to be trying to build a more vigorous democracy while south of the Border, folk back parties that blame Europe, immigrants, Human Rights legislation and the unemployed for Britain’s decline.

We are heading in different directions, and one day that will come to a head again. But meantime our new democracy movements can help transform the Scotland we’ve already got.

They can look close to home for inspiration. A few days before Scotland’s historic 84.6 per cent turnout, 85.9 per cent of Swedes voted in their general election .

How do they manage it? A century of full-blooded proportional representation and the world’s oldest freedom of information law help. So does the fact you can change postal votes and set up your own “write-in” party.

But even in Sweden, political parties have had to be “nudged” by activists. Before the 1994 elections a feminist network called Stödstrumporna (the support stockings) threatened to stand candidates unless existing parties selected more women and spent more on childcare, maternity leave and equal pay.

The parties got the message and competed for the women’s vote. Twenty years later, 44 per cent of the latest intake of Swedish MPs are female, which puts it fourth in the Inter Parliamentary Union league while the UK languishes at 65th.

The Scottish Parliament has slipped from second place in 1999 to 25th today. Childcare provision, maternity and paternity rights in Sweden are the strongest in Europe – and about the poorest in Scotland.

In short, there’s modernising and democratising work to do in Scotland, and groups like Women for Independence might help Scottish democracy more by remaining “un-captured” by any single party to exercise some influence over all. Political clout may be more important than party membership.