Who Wants to be Comfortably Numb?
2014 has fundamentally transformed me. I didn’t expect it. This time last year, Scottish independence was something I barely thought about. Struggling to balance long hours in an office job with raising two children, I wasn’t exactly comfortable but I was pretty numb, when it came to politics. In less than a year, my eyes have been opened to the state of the British state as never before. 2014 is the year in which I realised what democracy is, what democracy can be. It is the year in which I realised that the political status quo on the British Isles is not good enough, and that I want better for my children. 2014 has turned me from an economic unit into an active citizen.
Growing up, I didn’t hear much about politics from either elders or peers. In my comfortable English middle-class milieu, it was uncool to get discuss politics, let alone get involved—the closest thing I can remember to political discussion was the boys in our Oxbridge study room in the late ‘90s (yes, private schools have those—nice quiet spaces for the academic elite, to ensure the Oxbridge acceptance stats are high for the school’s marketing purposes) making sarcastic comments about “Tony”, no doubt mimicking their parents. I left school with no understanding of how our political system works, which meant I also had no ability to criticise it, or effectively take part in it. When I read the papers, I had no means of recognising bias. A straight-A student, totally clueless about life.
You have to ask yourself, if we are not raised to be active citizens, but instead compliant little units of economic productivity, then is this really a democracy?
In the last few months, my Facebook news feed has come alive. Friends and family in Scotland, other parts of the UK, and even some on the other side of the world have engaged in debate—generally mature and good-natured—about constitutional issues, public policies, the nature of ethnic and civic nationalism and many other matters. I’ve seen a conversation in Facebook comments reach over 100 responses. People are sharing news stories and counter-commentary at a rate of knots. I would wager that many people in Scotland can name about five times as many public figures (politicians, journalists, etc) and take apart their political opinions than they could a year ago. By contrast, for most of my adult life in England and Scotland, I was doing well if I knew who my local MP or MSP was, and usually had no idea about my local counsellors. I don’t think I was unusual in that.
And now, after months of active information dissemination and debate, multitudes of Scottish residents who have never left the sofa for a political cause before, and who have not been raised to be confident or comfortable in speaking publicly about politics, are out on the streets talking to strangers about the change we so strongly want to see in these islands.
Because democracy—real democracy, not a once-every-four-years vote for someone whose policies you don’t really like, but are less bad than the other guys’—is empowering and contagious. What the Yes movement in Scotland is experiencing this summer is hope. Not the hope of subsidy junkies for a slightly larger fix of welfare spending. The hope of an intelligent yet frustrated people for a stronger, more vibrant and more meaningful democracy.
They hope that when the next general election comes around, it is for a Holyrood government and is contested by a variety of parties whose policies, God forbid, might actually be so well-aligned with your vision for Scotland that you might once again get out on the streets and support them. Parties who don’t have to be ‘first past the post’ to get a voice into the Parliament to represent you, allowing the rise of new parties as the old become obsolete. New parties who can’t rely on ‘safe seats’, and so have to continue the cycle of engaging people with information and debate.
They hope for parties filled with politicians who don’t see the pinnacle of their career as an undemocratic appointment to an unelected upper house and/or a membership of a corporate board as a reward for pushing through unpopular policies.
A polity in which people are empowered, and politicians held to account. In which political activism is a normal, everyday thing, not the preserve of career politicians and extremists.
And my own hope, shared by a growing number of fellow citizens across the UK, is that once we have achieved a modern, participatory and non-hereditary democracy here in Scotland, the other nations and regions of British Isles will see that the future is not fixed, the status quo is not inevitable, and we don’t have accept a ludicrously outdated, ineffective and inadequate democratic set-up just because we were born into it. If every generation in the last few hundred years had taken that mind-set, we’d still be living under an absolute monarchy. Let’s revive some of the greatest British traditions of all: a critical stance towards those who would unfairly entrench power, and a refusal to be cowed by threats and lies.
This morning, I heard Pink Floyd on the radio. They seemed to sum up the dystopian future of a Britain which had drifted into managed democracy, treating citizens like economic units to be kept happy through cheap consumer goods, a fantasy of opportunity for all and a compliant media driven by commercial imperatives.
When I was a child
I caught a fleeting glimpse
Out of the corner of my eye
I turned to look but it was gone
I cannot put my finger on it now
The child is grown
The dream is gone
I have become comfortably numb
I don’t want my kids to become comfortably numb. Let’s not let this become an elegy for democracy on the British Isles.
Get the vote out. Vote YES.