By Kevin Williamson (This article was originally written for the Scottish Independence Convention’s Election 2011 daily blog).
Come election time the members, supporters and activists clustered around political parties leap into action. The election assumes the nature of a gladiatorial contest between the chosen ones versus the rest. In this atmosphere there is little enthusiasm for seeking out common ground. These sort of things are for later, always later, if at all. As election day approaches it’s every one for themselves and de’il take the hindmost. Such is the nature of party politics.
Then there are the committed voters and their floating cousins. They’ll watch from afar, like punters at a race track, sizing up the runners, keeping an eye on the odds, clutching their slips. For them – the multitude – politics is essentially a spectator sport. As far as democracy goes the time-honoured process of trotting down to a school or community centre every four or five years to etch a cross in a box is pretty feeble stuff. It is hardly what the Chartists and Suffragettes had in mind all those years ago.
As someone who would like to live in a country where democracy is part of our everyday lives – rather than a contrived media-driven circus every five years – the whole electoral set-up we have in the UK (and in Scotland for that matter) is inadequate and uninspiring. It’s incredibly elitist too, with just a few hundred professional politicians deciding everything on behalf of the millions. A participatory democracy it is not.
But here in Scotland new ideas have been initiated at Holyrood which could be a harbinger of better days to come. We have a political system where members of the public can participate in the cross-party committees which feed into the decision-making process. Likewise any member of the public can raise a petition to go to the petitions committee which could then go before Parliament itself. These are small changes but not insignificant ones since they map out a political path based upon the principle of civic participation.
In contrast, the British political system is archaic, anti-democratic, elitist, and, as the last few years have shown, it has been disgustingly corrupt since the dawn of universal suffrage in 1928. Elected MPs seem to think their first priority is to line their own pockets at the taxpayers’ expense. This is what happens when a parliament is deliberately kept out of reach of the public’s continuous scrutiny. The sad fact of this very British farce is that there is as much chance of Westminster moving towards a participatory democracy as Colonel Gaddafi winning Best Dressed Man of the Year.
To go from A to B is a process. Long ago I came to the conclusion that my best hope of living in a genuine participatory democracy was if Scotland ditched Westminster, extricated itself from the semi-medieval British state, and created a new and uniquely Scottish model of democracy. For me, this is what Scottish independence is all about; re-imagining our democratic space as something we can use as a practical everyday tool to help make our quality of life better and our short time on this earth happier. What an exciting once-in-a-lifetime opportunity this conjures up: to engage in the process of self-liberation, and to help shape a new, involved, and potentially unconstrained democracy. We have a blank page to write upon. All that is needed is imagination and a sense of purpose.
In this context the current Scottish elections are important. The London barbarians are at the gates. Their pale pink shadow offers nothing but Deficit Hysteria Lite. Scottish social values, so very different from those in England, are under attack and our vital public services could be mangled over the next few years if London has its way. As Eric Burdon and The Animals once sang, We gotta get out of this place.
Although it is never explicitly admitted politicians know fine well that, external events aside, when you form a government you effectively control the political agenda. If, for instance, Labour were to re-take power the mainstream media wouldn’t even deign to mention let alone discuss independence over the next five years. This is one good solid reason why even a minority SNP government – hopefully backed by a vastly expanded group of Greens and other pro-referendum MSPs – would be a welcome step towards independence and a genuine participatory democracy.