Peter Jones: Referendum shows the power of people

The referendum's real prize should be the extended empowerment of people in Scotland. Picture: Greg Macvean

The referendum's real prize should be the extended empowerment of people in Scotland. Picture: Greg Macvean

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The referendum should yield a bottom-up politics, in which individuals have a bigger role in their own destiny, says Peter Jones

PEOPLE’S needs rather than politicians’ power wants should be what the referendum aftermath is all about. But it isn’t, which I find the most dispiriting aspect of the current debate.

Indeed, politicians fighting about what the referendum result means in terms of what new powers should be delivered to the Scottish Parliament is perhaps the worst possible aftermath. It must be such sweet consolation to the SNP, though hardly enough to overpower the long-lasting bitterness of last Thursday’s defeat.

Much more seriously, it threatens to snatch away what should be the real prize from who should be the real winners – genuine empowerment of the people of Scotland to make a real difference to their own lives regardless of what set of power-wielders happen to be in place in Holyrood or Westminster. The truly astonishing thing about R-Day was not the result, but the degree of participation. I’ll bet that it breaks all records in western democracies for voter engagement. The facts are astounding – 97 per cent of eligible voters registered to vote which means that probably only the mentally incapacitated didn’t take part.

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And of those registered, 85 per cent voted, beating by several lengths the previous record for a UK turnout – the 81 per cent who voted to approve the 1998 Good Friday peace agreement in Northern Ireland. I’m not surprised some people think this is suspiciously high. I hope their suspicions are properly investigated and found to be groundless.

Still, any pochling that went on, and there will have been some (on both sides), could only have been at the margins. On a difference between the two camps of nearly 400,000 votes, any vote-swindling simply could not have been enough to convert a Yes vote into No.

And behind all that participation was passionate debate and exuberant organisation. Groups backing No and Yes sprang up all over the place, some marshalled by common interests and occupation, many more drawn together by ties of community. Experienced politicians were surprised by the astounding vitality that the indyref unleashed.

And what are they going to do now R-Day has passed? My guess is that many of them will not be content to simply fold up the banners and bin the leaflets. On the Yes side there will be frustration, on the No side contentment, but a desire to do more will be common to both.

I guess also that many will not be content to sit back and watch the politicians on their TV screens bicker and squabble about how much extra power the Scottish Parliament should gain. And that goes right to the heart of something I feel very strongly is badly missing from Scottish politics – people empowerment.

One of the striking things about the vote was how there was a pretty close correlation between unemployment and poverty, and inclination to vote for independence. Many of the most deprived in Scottish society seemed to take the view that things for them could hardly get much worse and maybe there was a chance that they could be better under independence.

That should strike fear into Labour hearts. Scottish Labour has pretty much lost Dundee to the SNP, and now heartland Glasgow and the neighbouring Lanarkshires and Dunbartonshires could follow.

When you realise that the 1.6 million who voted Yes is getting close to twice the 900,000 that voted SNP in the constituency ballot of the 2011 Scottish Parliament election (which was a record high for the party) and that the SNP’s formidable election machine probably knows the identity of at least one million and probably more of those Yes voters, you begin to understand what a strategic political gain the referendum has been for the SNP, regardless of the result.

But I’m less concerned about the political winners and losers than I am about what the Scottish people, and especially the poor and the deprived, could gain from this. And frankly, I don’t think that wielding powers at Holyrood rather than Westminster is the answer.

There are some big issues which are involved with this power transfer which I’ll discuss at a later date. The more important issue is how to achieve a lasting improvement in the economic and social condition of Scots, especially the poorest Scots.

While changes to personal taxation and welfare provision can make some difference, they don’t address some of the fundamental problems. They are also examples of the top-down politics – political elites handing down treats to the masses type of politics – which just isn’t working.

The new solution which the referendum has made possible is the creation of a bottom-up politics where people, whether on an individual basis or in local collective organisations, take charge of their own destinies. The referendum has demonstrated that there is a vast political energy out there to do just exactly that.

For example, one lesson that has emerged time and time again from efforts to regenerate broken and deprived communities is that the schemes that work have a high degree of residents’ involvement. The amount of money being spent, the involvement of professional planners and architects – none of that makes quite such a difference as the engagement of local people right at the heart of the project, driving it forward and making the whole community feel that they own it.

I feel strongly that there is a local dimension to tackling a lot of national issues which current politics completely misses. Whether it is social issues – broken families, drug and alcohol abuse, crime – or economic problems – provision of jobs, increasing skill levels, ensuring decent transport – local energies can go a long way to solving them.

National political action can provide the framework to free up that energy – Highland land reform allowing community control of land assets is a good example – but such initiatives dissipate unless local people get the tools and freedom to act.

A big prize awaits the political party willing to find and enable Scotland’s best untapped resource – its people. I don’t much care which party does it, just so long as somebody does. But in this feverish post-referendum mood, when far too many folk are excitably venting bile via social media and national politicians are fighting over big-ticket (for them) tax and welfare powers, I suspect I am whistling in the wind.

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