19 September 2014
Last week, in my home town of Oxford, the City Council managed to get their former leader back on the Council in a by-election that attracted a turnout of less than nine per cent.
With that in mind, I’ve come to Glasgow to see what a healthy democracy looks like.
We arrive on the eve of polling day and, by chance, the bus dumps us in George Square, the beating heart of the ‘Yes’ campaign in Glasgow. There are a couple of hundred ‘Yes’ people milling around, with the main interest focused on the ‘Catalonia Is Not Spanish’ supporters, who have clearly taken this campaign to their hearts.
A banner proclaiming that ‘the only banks we’ll lose will be the food banks’ shows that activism is alive and well – still, it’s mid-afternoon and probably not the best time to find much passion. We decide to move west, to the intellectual part of the city, around the University.
Unfortunately, it’s Freshers Week, so probably not the best time to gauge student interest. We find an excited cheering group, but closer inspection shows that they are watching a busker singing Oasis songs. A nearby radical bookshop is plastered with ‘Yes’ votes, as is the parked Ford Mondeo next to it, although the surrounding BMWs aren’t committing.
With polls opening the next day, we decide to get an early night. Next morning, a quick walk around downtown Glasgow finds lots of people carrying cappuccinos and scurrying off to work at Lloyds Bank, Direct Line and Unison. There is little evidence that an election is about to happen.
It is overcast, the Clyde is grey, and a single swan lightens the mood. Glasgow looks like a typical hard-working city, where everyone has a lot on their mind, and politics are pretty low on the agenda. The TV offers nothing, and on news channels voters are being advised to put a single cross against their choice, which I guess is fair advice as most people have never voted before.
We spend most of the day walking around, finding fascinating buildings, but little in the way of politics. Crossing the Clyde, we find ourselves in the Gorbals [neighbourhood], which is now a mixture of new flats and houses. It might look a bit boring, but it’s an amazing transformation from the tenements of not-so-long ago.
There’s a polling station there, but it’s much like those back home, a smattering of voters being courted by a couple of people with stickers. In a final effort to unearth some passionate campaigners, we head back to George Square to be there when the polls close at 10pm. There are a few hundred people waving Scottish flags, singing and chanting, but it’s still pretty low key. Today’s best poster was ‘bairns, not bombs’.
We don’t wake up to the sound of blaring car horns, just the steady drone of the city traffic as people get back to work. The result is as expected, 55 per cent for ‘No’, 45 per cent for ‘Yes’ and a turnout of 85 per cent.
It’s a massive win for the Scottish people. From my admittedly limited observations, they just got on with their lives, while creating a massive amount of sound and fury, as if fermenting a revolution.
They forced the three main Westminster parties to offer them powers they really didn’t want to concede. By simply placing a cross on a piece of paper (‘Yes’ or ‘No’, it didn’t really matter) they confirmed their insistence that they be heard.
Specifically, it was a great result for Alex Salmond and the Scottish National Party (SNP). They have brought Scotland to the attention of the world, demonstrating that if you engage with people in a democratic process, they will turn out and vote.
The SNP cut the massive lead of the ‘No’ campaign and scared Westminster into making their extra promises. Just think what a ‘Yes’ vote would have meant for the SNP. Two years of hell, negotiating the near impossible and alienating everyone. Then they achieve their objective and everyone looks for some other parties to vote for.
The ‘No’ vote means that Scotland now has to do some hard negotiations with the Westminster parties to gain the promised extra benefits. The SNP looks like the only party capable of representing Scotland in these negotiations, so why would a Scot vote for anyone else?
The other main winners were the other regions of Britain. This vote has surely put a stop to the increasing powers that Westminster was taking for itself, with other regions now able to demand that more power be devolved to them. And with a ‘No’ vote, the British electorate no longer faces the prospect of an everlasting Tory government.
The losers? Clearly some Scots will be deeply disappointed that they have got so close to gaining their independence; still, they should take heart in the fact that they have completely outmaneuvered all the major British parties.
It is they who are the real losers. Also, spare a thought for those regions around the world, like Catalonia, which saw Scotland as a possible trail-blazer and which are now back on their own again.
As for democracy, back in Oxford I don’t expect that much will change – there, the primary rule still applies, that those who own all the land also have all the power.