Monday 03-11-2014 - 16:44
On 18 September 2014, an unprecedented number of people in Scotland took to the polls and marked a box labelled yes or no when asked ‘Should Scotland be an independent country?'
The participation numbers in the referendum speak for themselves: 97 per cent of citizens registered, 85 per cent of those registered actually voted on the day, and post-referendum there’s been a huge increase in the number of people signing up to political parties.
But it wasn’t just the turnout and engagement that was unprecedented. For the first time in Scotland, or the rest of the UK for that matter, 16 and 17 year olds had the opportunity to cast a vote that would decide the future direction of their country.
So what was so different about the independence referendum that got citizens taking to the ballot box in such high numbers, and what should be done to ensure that the future direction of Scotland is determined by a citizen-led process that puts people, not politicians, first?
The atmosphere that encompassed Scotland in the run up to the referendum was utterly unique. The air was electrifying with fundamental questions of what makes up Scotland: can you be Scottish and British at the same time? What would it look like if Scotland had tax-raising powers? Would people living in Scotland have more opportunity to hold Scottish Government to account for the money they spent? Could Scotland manage financially if it was independent? If Scotland became independent would it still be part of the EU? Would Scotland have to reapply to be in the EU? Would Scotland be able to keep the pound as its currency?
These, and many, many more questions were discussed and argued over with family members, political activists and strangers at the bus stop, on Facebook, in university halls, shopping centres, coffee shops and pubs. The conversations were as dynamic as the polls. It seemed as though every new week, another opinion survey would come out either changing or confirming speculation as to what might happen.
These conversations were driven by the central idea of people having a direct say in the future of their country, and that their vote would fundamentally change the future of their country, no matter which side they took.
This prospect of taking Scotland’s status in the UK into our own hands through the debate brought both sides of the campaign out in droves, and instilled a belief that the process of governing was no longer solely led by the political parties, but led by the people of Scotland. People who had never been involved in politics before got involved in the Yes and the No campaigns. They saw that they had the chance to influence the most important decision Scotland would face for decades, and that their vote would matter.
The result of the referendum is undisputed; Scotland voted to remain in the UK. And yet the result did not signal an acceptance of the status quo. The two biggest parties in Scotland have seen their leaders depart. A commission has been set up to look at what new powers Scotland should have, led by Lord Smith, and already there has been 11,000 submissions into this process.
Other changes could be on the way. The high number of 16 and 17 year olds that not only voted but engaged in the debate have given significant momentum to the effort to extend the vote to 16 and 17 year olds UK-wide.
Long-term, the Referendum could act as the catalyst needed for people, communities, and organisations across all sectors – third, public and private – to work together in a new way to create real change in a new Scotland - a citizen-led process that works to form Scotland’s new constitutional settlement that goes beyond the existing model involves genuine ownership of the process by the people.
Such a citizen-led process would have two elements – firstly, consideration of more powers for the parliament and, secondly, consideration of how we empower our people over the decisions that affect their lives. It would look beyond constitutional powers, to how we can empower communities and citizens in the decisions that affect their lives.
NUS Scotland, working together with trade unions and the third sector, has just proposed such an approach to Lord Smith’s commission.
By starting as we wish to go on, genuinely changing how we make decisions in Scotland, and empowering the people of Scotland over the decisions that affect their lives, we can continue the pre-Referendum engagement that so galvanised all segments of Scottish society, and potentially change for the better the ways in which democracy works in Scotland, and the rest of the UK.