It took something special to politically engage us

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SCOTLAND’S task now is to begin to turn a divided nation into a united one. In some areas of politics this will be a considerable challenge. But in others it should be relatively easy for rivals to find common cause.

One of those is the future of democracy. The extraordinary turnout for the referendum has shown that, in the right circumstances, politics can enthuse and energise. The sceptics have been confounded.

The extraordinary turnout for the referendum has shown that politics can enthuse and energise. Picture: Hemedia

The extraordinary turnout for the referendum has shown that politics can enthuse and energise. Picture: Hemedia

In Scotland’s peripheral housing schemes, where turnout is often pitiful, polling stations were busy as Scots who do not normally take part in elections decided to have their say on the future of their country. The question now is whether this was a one-off, a blip, or whether lessons can be learned from the referendum experience to energise our wider democracy at all levels.

Of course it must be acknowledged the referendum was something special. Could any other political vote – to elect a MP to parliament, or councillor to a local authority, for example – be capable of attracting as much attention as deciding the fate of a nation?

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Probably not. But that should not stop us from trying. The thought of the next election returning to the usual levels of turnout – sometimes barely one in four in some areas – is unacceptable.

The way in which the campaign played out can provide some useful clues as to how we improve engagement in the democratic process.

The biggest lesson is the involvement of 16- and 17-year-olds. Alex Salmond’s insistence on this was controversial. Some saw it as a means of gerrymandering the referendum by including a group of voters the nationalists believed would be natural supporters of an independent state.

In the event, Scotland’s youngest voters proved a more elusive quarry, initially showing large majorities in favour of the UK – although some later polls suggested this imbalance was less pronounced by the end of the campaign.

What was clear, however, was the energy and enthusiasm with which this group grabbed the opportunity to be part of the national conversation, with schools reporting keen interest across all ability groups.

And all, of course, watched by younger pupils in each school, hopefully inculcating in them an appetite for when they too could be trusted with such important matters of state. The bottom line is that extending the franchise to 16- and 17-year-olds has demonstrably been a resounding success. It was always a mockery that people in this age group could work, pay taxes, marry, divorce and join the army, but could not participate in the country’s decision-making. It is time now for the same franchise to be extended to other elections too.

More broadly, there may be lessons in the way the campaigns conducted themselves.

Timeline: the road to the Scottish independence referendum

Both prided themselves on the energy and application of their activists, and both claimed to have attracted people who would not normally engage.

But there can be little doubt that the Better Together approach was much more top-down than the Yes Scotland approach.

The pro-independence campaign encouraged the creation of a wide range of Yes groups, official and unofficial. By encouraging people to join with those of a similar interest group or demographic type – trade unionists, women, “creatives”, LGBT and so on – did they prove that politics is best pursued by like-minded people in small groupings rather than in large, amorphous, umbrella political parties?

A cynic might question whether the Yes approach was responsible for a greater engagement, pointing out that the high turnout suggests that people would have come out to vote anyway, from both sides, in such a high-stakes referendum, regardless of the campaign methods deployed.

A cynic might also point to the fact that half of all Scots will have had their hopes dashed by this morning’s result, and that this may actually put people off politics. If you have been persuaded to participate in a democratic process you have previously shunned, having been persuaded that it can deliver something you passionately want to change or preserve, only to have those hopes cruelly crushed, the effect may not be a new and burning desire to repeat that experience. It may, in fact, confirm your initial scepticism.

Perhaps the most important lesson is a far simpler one, with little to do with the mechanics of political organisation and campaigning. Perhaps it is simply that politics should be about issues that people actually care about, in which clearly distinctive ideas are pitched against each other with passion and intelligence.

That worked in the independence referendum, producing a campaign of historic import and drama. Is it too much to hope that we can see its like again?

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