Lesley Riddoch: Scotland politically switched-on

Yes supporters show their enthusiasm at an SNP rally in Glasgow. Picture: Robert Perry
Yes supporters show their enthusiasm at an SNP rally in Glasgow. Picture: Robert Perry
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The referendum engaged many voters and this is set to spill over to the general election, writes Lesley Riddoch

Pinch yourselves. This really is Scotland. The winter rain may pour – as usual. The wind may howl – as it always does. We are still the sick man of Europe and have just been whacked by England at rugby. But one thing has changed – and perhaps changed permanently. We are democratically awake – the folk most likely to vote in the whole, dismally dormant UK.

According to an Edinburgh University survey published today, 76 per cent of those polled in Scotland say they will vote in the forthcoming general election compared to 64 per cent in Wales, 63 per cent in England and just 55 per cent in Northern Ireland. The percentage of 18 and 19-year-olds preparing to vote in Scotland (64 per cent) is twice the figure for teenagers south of the Border.

This survey is an eloquent riposte to those who maintain the referendum effect would be short-lived – whaur’s yer cynicism noo?

Despite gloom over the latest GERS figures, the oil-price collapse and scaremongering about the economic dangers of home rule, despite months of the UK media obsessing over London-based party leaders, Nicola Sturgeon’s head smiling from Miley Cyrus’ scantily-clad body in the Sun, Ed Miliband popping out of Alex Salmond’s pocket and the “incest and country dancing” strapline in a Guardian cartoon – despite all these attempts to belittle Scottish leaders and pour cold water on their challenge to Westminster austerity, Scots are queueing up to vote on 7 May.

And they aren’t queueing up to back the status quo. Scots look set to upend British politics. The more Scots are painted as a jumped-up, disruptive, unruly bunch of malcontents, the more we seem to like it.

Of course there are questions.

Will all of the 76 per cent actually turn out to vote? Two years in the referendum limelight may have left Scots more inclined to appear conscientious to pollsters than turn out on the day. Do all of the 76 per cent plan to vote SNP? Obviously not. Scary Ashcroft poll results prompted Danny Alexander’s desperate weekend plea for tactical voting to save his skin and stem the rising SNP tide.

Some Unionist voters in key seats are bound to heed that call. And since Ashcroft didn’t prompt voters by naming candidates, some weel kent faces like Charles Kennedy may get an un-anticipated personal voting boost on the day. Labour is still polling around 30 per cent, That would be good enough to avoid a complete wipeout in any country save Britain – the country that failed to reform its antiquated first-past-the-post voting system while Labour was in government.

In general though, it feels as if the die is cast and last minute manoeuvring is just noise. Many voters have already decided how they will vote in this election – they decided on 19 September.

Much since then has been irrelevant, because love them or loathe them, the SNP raised the bar with its energy, focus and sense of mission. By contrast rivals seem to demonstrate only a mission to survive. And that’s not a powerful recruiting sergeant.

Although it’s always unwise to count chickens before they hatch, poll after poll suggests the spirit of engagement aroused by the independence referendum, lives on. And engaged voters continue to move towards support for home rule.

In short, the Edinburgh University study questions the belief that Scots are just unremarkable, average UK voters given to occasional outbursts of smeddum and temporary flourishes of national behaviour. It suggests Scots as a nation now share the SNP’s sense of mission.

How has that occurred? What has helped Scots switch on to a Westminster election in which our combined clout is so very small?

Of course, it could be the tantalising prospect of a Lab-Nat pact in which SNP red lines allow Labour MPs to regain their moral compass, reject austerity and axe the replacement of Trident.

It could also be though, that the Yes movement inside and outside the SNP has been instrumental in keeping the vision of an alternative future alive. Often dismissed by a media that believes politics happens in parliaments, not beyond them, the Yes movement is arguably the real political and organisational success story of 2014.

SNP candidate Tommy Sheppard pointed out yesterday in Scotland on Sunday: “The SNP itself is still coming to terms with the legacy of the referendum. You can’t quadruple your membership and not expect things to change. The change is coming slowly, but already its character is clear – the move is towards a party which is younger, more female and very much more radical.”

Outside the party too, a new, more radical political consensus is emerging. This weekend, almost a thousand activists gathered at a Women for Independence conference in Perth and a Radical Independence conference in Dundee. The first voted to consider the creation of a Women’s Party if existing parties don’t act on gender equality. The second discussed land reform and unconventional gas, community control and a new flexible constitution that’s taken six months to perfect.

These activists have been keeping voters engaged all winter long via Facebook groups, cafes, campaigns, speaker meetings and reading groups. Now they are set to channel energies beyond the General Election into the most hotly contested Holyrood elections Scotland has ever seen.

The wider Yes movement has clout – its influence is being felt within the SNP, within the Scottish Government and within the British election campaign. That’s a leap forward for participatory democracy and at least part of the reason Scotland looks set to record such an impressive turnout on 7 May.

But we could do even better.

Last year’s Swedish general election had a turnout of 85.8 per cent – higher even than Scotland’s referendum. The Swedes hold elections on a Sunday – so fewer people are at work. All elections (for local, regional and national governments) take place on the same day, the PR system is more proportional and TV debates with 7 party leaders are entirely unremarkable.

Scots look set to register a better turnout than the rest of the UK. The next goal should be reaching democratic parity with our truly modern Nordic neighbours.

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