Tuesday, 9 September 2014

Democracy and the Referendum

With just 10 days to go until the Referendum, frantic conversations are taking place throughout Scotland as both sides try to persuade family members, friends and strangers to jump off the fence and join their side. My flatmate even went so far as to take part in the Great North Run yesterday to avoid me pestering him about it.

With the date inching ever closer, the temperature is being notched up as the tension builds and builds. Taking a step back from this, however, I find all this nervous energy not just exciting, but also something to be savoured.

People seem to be engaging in political issues in Scotland to an extent not seen for many years. Certainly in the ten years in which I have been eligible to vote this appears unprecedented. Turnout predictions of over 80% are heartening for any democracy, especially as the last Scottish Parliament election just scraped past 50%.

The referendum campaign has reinforced my belief that the Scottish people desire to engage with important questions and to have their voice heard. People in Scotland are clearly not apathetic, but have been turned off politics in recent years due to a variety of reasons.

In my experience with the Poverty Truth Commission and elsewhere, people will engage when they believe their voice to be listened to and to have the ability to make tangible change. This is not a ground-breaking revelation by any means, but people in power appear to have forgotten this.

We seem to have stalled at the stage of only participating through the ballot box once every few years. The result has been an apparently growing distance between the people making important decisions and the people affected by them. This has created an increasingly self-reinforcing downward spiral.

As the referendum debate has shown, however, this is certainly not something which we cannot tackle and overcome. Regardless of the constitutional framework in which we find ourselves in, this must be our challenge going forward: how do we ensure everyone’s voice is heard and valued?

In June of this year the Poverty Truth Commission gave those with experience of poverty the platform to have their voices heard by important decision makers. The Commission’s Turning Up the Volume on Poverty' campaign challenges all of us to make our institutions more participatory and easier for people to engage with.

After all, increasing participation will not only serve to better legitimise decision making, but will result in enhanced outcomes through greater input from people with real experience of the issues at hand.

It is my sincere hope that, regardless of next week’s outcome, both sides can keep that hunger and desire for a greater say in their society. A more participatory democracy is clearly a benefit for us all but it won’t happen itself, we have to reach out and grab it.

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