Last week, two out of three people didn’t bother voting in the Cowdenbeath by-election. Maybe this explains why …
Whatever your political views, this is a very important year. The commentators, the politicians and the so-called experts will all be heard ad nauseam – but ultimately it’s you and me, the ‘ordinary’ people of Scotland, who will decide our nation’s future.
But however Scotland votes in September, what is even more important is that the people of this country seize this opportunity to take our democracy back. For whether we’re governed from Westminster or Holyrood is almost irrelevant unless democracy – real democracy – is reawakened.
I’ll lay my cards on the table. I’m an Old Labour man – real Labour as I like to see it. I’ve never really bought into New Labour – or, more recently, One Nation Labour. I joined the Labour Party thirty years ago – the year of the Miners Strike – when Labour was a movement, not a commodity to be renamed, rebranded and repackaged.
It’s a long time ago now, but back then politics seemed a simple, straightforward affair. Labour was left wing, the Tories were right wing and you knew on which side of the barricade you stood. Public ownership, a strong welfare state and supporting the most vulnerable – or rampant capitalism, greed and let the poorest take care of themselves.
The working classes versus the toffs: that’s simplifying it too much, of course – working class people queued in their tens of thousands to snap up their council houses at bargain basement rates, and some were delighted to fill their boots with shares in the big utilities too – but you get my point. The Poll Tax, Wapping, the Miners Strike – you knew which side you were on. The Tories, if not your sworn enemies, were at least your opponents. Party members on both sides believed in things.
Politics today is different, though – where once party politics was driven by core beliefs and ideology, now everything’s seemingly expendable, disposable. Politics is a business, a career choice. Forget manifestos written in blood on tablets of stone, there’s now no policy that can’t be ‘un-ditched’ or quietly dropped in the quest for power. Fearful of UKIP, the Tories lurch to the right, Labour clings desperately to the middle ground while the Lib Dems shuffle uncomfortably between the two, ready to answer the call after the next election – and any call will do. We are left with three identikit centrist parties that sometimes appear indistinguishable. The rosettes are different colours but the policies are much the same.
What do they believe in? ‘Social Justice’. ‘Fairness’. ‘Supporting hard-working families,’ they all earnestly reply in unison. Yes, quite, and of course they all salute ‘our brave troops’ and praise ‘our wonderful nurses’.
And now, with a referendum just months away, we have Labour, Conservative and Lib Dem uniting to ‘save the Union’. Grown-up politics, they call it, but it’s not that at all: this is a marriage of convenience, an arranged marriage and the sight of Cameron, Darling and Carmichael all singing from the same hymn sheet makes me feel decidedly uncomfortable.
Labour vilifies the Tories for introducing the ‘bedroom tax’ and other punitive welfare reforms, the Tories lambast Labour for lax immigration policies and financial mismanagement on a massive scale, and yet … and yet both are content to ‘put their differences aside’ and unite with these very same people in a titanic struggle against the new enemy within, the new baddies – the Nationalists – to heroically save the precious union. But this referendum ‘transcends’ party politics, we’re told.
I agree the referendum transcends party politics – something as important as this simply can’t be left to politicians – but is this really about saving the union? Perhaps it’s really more about preserving the status quo? Better Together? Certainly, better for career politicians, if not necessarily for democracy.
Career politicians are by nature conservative; they don’t want major change or anything that may upset the established order – particularly one that might lose them their seat.
At present we have Westminster elections every four or five years. Elections will be won by party A, who these days may have to form a coalition with Party B to take power. Party C will have a spell in opposition. A few years down the line, another election. Party B wins this time, and perhaps governs with the help of Party C while Party A take their turn in opposition. Cosy, comfortable – why change something that works so well? The voting public gets to have their say every five years or so; surely everybody’s happy?
Well, no. In the 1950s, one person in ten was a member of a political party. Today, it’s fewer than one in a hundred. People are disillusioned with party politics and sickened by career politicians who seem more interested in self-service than public service. People don’t trust politicians, so they disengage from politics and so from democracy. Look at the turnouts at elections – people are ‘scunnered’ by today’s party politics.
The nation’s top ‘doers and thinkers’, the men and women with ideas who would naturally lead our country instead choose a life in commerce, the arts, academia or science other than the grubby world of politics, and as a result we are left with an ever-decreasing group of political ‘leaders’ to shape our nation’s future.
Today, with a handful of exceptions, we are hardly blessed with a generation of political giants. With such a dearth of talent and lack of credible opposition Alex Salmond bestrides Scotland’s political stage like a colossus, ably supported by Nicola Sturgeon. Had Salmond not been at the helm of the SNP do you think we would have been voting to determine Scotland’s future in September?
People may not like Alex Salmond, but they do respect him – however grudging that respect may be. A respected politician is a rare thing these days, and perhaps it’s little wonder. Remember the furore over MPs expenses? We put them there to represent us, but instead they stole from us, cheated and lie to us. Some have gone on to the House of Lords to continue to fill their boots, clocking in and out again for £300 a day. Nice work if you can get it. As the noble Baron Prescott of Kingston-upon-Hull succinctly put it: ‘it’s better than working’.
When the scale of expenses scandal was exposed you might have thought that furious citizens would have taken to the streets to protest, as they would in other countries and as we ourselves have done in the past. But not us, not these days: some short-lived indignation, a few sacrificial lambs, some smacked wrists and it’s back to business as usual. Somewhere along the way we seem to have lost the will to fight, to question, to challenge. And now they talk about a wage rise for MPs – to stop them stealing from us again.
We meekly accept pensioners dying from cold while the big energy companies continue to make obscene profits.
We accept the sell off to the few of national assets like Royal Mail – assets that should belong to all of us – and at bargain basement rates too. You might expect it from the Tories, but Labour’s complaint? Not that they sold it off, but that they sold it off too cheaply!
When Mandela died, we saw the old film footage once again of snaking queues of people that seemed to stretch forever, waiting patiently and joyously to cast their first ever vote in a free election. Democracy should be such a precious thing, but for too many of us it now seems that even turning up once every few years to put a cross in a box is just too much to ask. ‘What’s the point? They’re all the same. It changes nothing’. And, increasingly, it’s difficult to argue against that attitude.
Only recently, a substantial number of Labour MPs ‘paired’ with Tories and absented themselves from an important debate on welfare reforms and the ‘bedroom tax’. Important? Maybe, but clearly not as important as upholding the noble traditions and fine conventions of the Palace of Westminster. All in it together? You bet!
But while political parties carry much of the blame for this breakdown in democracy, we have to share that blame too. We have allowed this to happen. We get the politicians we deserve.
This year’s Referendum – the debate that precede it and the negotiations that will follow it – offers an opportunity to reinvigorate our democracy; an opportunity to take democracy – something precious that belongs to all of us – back into public ownership. We all have a responsibility to future generations to bring about that change – for the career party politicians can’t be trusted to do it.
The challenge will be to engage many, many more people in the discussion – not only the politicians, the commentators, the ‘experts’. The party political establishment has a stranglehold on democracy and that has got to change. For without wider public debate and discussion, and a fundamental change to the way our political system works (or doesn’t), real democracy will continue to wither and die.
For me, Westminster is now totally discredited; the ‘Honourable Members’ corrupt practices aside, it’s anachronistic customs and procedures have no place in a modern democracy. The establishment parliamentarians’ unwillingness to reform even the House of Lords prove that even minimal modernisation is unlikely, so more radical change is unthinkable – the current setup suits too many ‘insiders’ very nicely, thank you.
So in September, Scotland does have an opportunity to radically change the way we ‘do politics’ and if we really value our democracy we must vote YES in the referendum. Holyrood isn’t perfect, but it has done well to avoid the worst excesses of Westminster. By choosing self-government we would at least have the opportunity to shape our parliamentary democracy to be inclusive, working for the benefit of all of the people, not just a privileged few. Like democracy is supposed to be. And by taking responsibility for our own future, we’d have no-one to blame but ourselves if it didn’t work. Just the way it should be.
Whatever way Scotland votes, if nothing else the referendum should stimulate a level of public debate we haven’t seen in this country for generations. And surely that can only be good for the health of our nation’s democracy?
Power to the people? Now there’s a thought!