Friday, 19 September 2014

Questions of Democracy

Democracy - rule by the people - is at the heart of Western society. It is cherished as the most equitable form of government, and much effort is put into seeking to proselytise others to its cause. But do we fully understand it?

Yesterday the people of Scotland engaged in an exercise in democracy, as they were asked to respond to a simple question: did they still wish to be a part of the United Kingdom, or was it time for them to become an independent nation (again)? They decided by 55% to 45% to stay within the Union, much to the relief of the political establishment in Westminster and financial markets across the world.

One thing that struck me about the referendum was the way in which it captured the imagination of the Scottish people, in that 85% of them actively participated in the vote. Such a turnout has not been seen in UK politics for well over 60 years, and bucks the trend of apathy that seems to be sweeping through domestic politics. This got me thinking: why would this be the case?

Was it that this election was about an issue that most people could relate to and understand - a matter of national identity?

Was it that this election was about a single issue? This has proved successful in other elections, be it Martin Bell standing against the cash-for-questions sleaze, or UKIP making immigration the scapegoat for the nation's ills.

Was it that this election was more firmly about an issue rather than individuals and personalities, in a way that national elections increasingly are not - a fact reflected in the Leaders' debates during the 2010 election which led to the relative success of the Lib Dems. People tend to talk of voting for the party leader, rather than that party's particular policies: I'm not conscious of the 'Yes' campaign putting too much emphasis on Alex Salmond over against the principle of independence.

Referenda, being single-issue plebiscites, perhaps have a tendency to be better supported than other such polls, though it will be interesting to see, if and when the tentatively-promised 'in-out' referendum on Britain's continued membership of the EU happens, whether we see anything like the figures we saw in Scotland.

There does seem to be an increasing apathy towards organised politics in the UK. Turnout for the last General election in 2010 was 65.1%; for the last Local Government elections only 36%; and for the election  of Police & Crime Commissioners a pitiful 15.1%. South Yorkshire will be holding a by-election shortly for its PCC, following the resignation of Sean Wright in the wake of the Rotherham Child abuse scandal: will the voters make an effort this time? We'll see.

From the time I turned 18, in that momentous year of 1979, I have always voted, and have always urged people to use their own vote. Compared to many countries, we have an enormous privilege in being able to have our say in the running of our nation and local communities. But in recent years I have found it increasingly difficult to decide where to place my 'X' on the ballot paper, and I recognise that others are showing their frustration with the system by simply opting out. There must be a way that we can find to enable more people to engage with the political process, but at the moment I'm at a loss to know what it might be, and I'm not sure whether the constitutional reforms hinted at by Cameron this morning will be the answer.