I thought long and hard about whether to blog during the referendum debate but I have struggled to find words to express what I wanted to say. However, the day after the result has been announced it is important to take stock of where we are as a country. Even if I still can't find the right words it is important to try and say something because I believe this is potentially a turning point in our history and the direction of travel is still to be determined.
The first thing to say is that a 45% yes vote is remarkable, especially when you consider that the entire weight of the British establishment (political parties, media, business etc.) was trying with all its might to get a no vote. The second thing is that this does not mean that half of those living in Scotland subscribe to a parochial nationalism. A poll conducted after all the votes had been cast found that the single biggest factor for those voting yes was disaffection with Westminster politics. It also found that while 72% of no voters had always known they would vote that way, that the majority of yes voters only made up their mind during the last year. I don't believe that these things are a coincidence. It is no secret that most people feel disconnected from politics but it is a new thing to see the ugly head of power lashing out in terror when it saw itself threatened. Many Scots, including many of those who voted no, have become aware of the lack of accountability in the governance of the UK and this knowledge is something that is not going to go away.
For a short while we have allowed ourselves to dream. A grassroots movement rose up across Scotland where people have asked questions about subjects which politicians have for generations considered their own personal domain. Organisations such as National Collective and Common Weal have gathered all sorts of creative people and experts to imagine what a better Scotland should look like from scratch. New media outlets have sprung up online such as Bella Caledonia and Wings Over Scotland, giving a platform to ordinary voices and those who feel their view is unrepresented by the mainstream media. All of this may appear chaotic, it may not give out polished messages or talk in soundbites, and there may be things said that are controversial or even offensive to some. But above all it is passionate and it has refused to believe that the job of making a better country should be constrained by whichever party happens to be in power. The dreams of many are now much harder to achieve but that should not stop us having dreams.
The talk now is of reconciliation and unity, but to what end? I am a proud member of the Church of Scotland and I believe it has an important voice in national dialogue but this week I fear it has let itself down. It is possible to stay neutral and preach reconciliation while at the same time to speak strongly about the important issues in society with which the church is concerned and it has failed to do that, resulting in bland platitudes and adding to the scaremongering about division. There was fantastic work done by Church and Society in Imagining Scotland's Future but why aren't we shouting about the priorities which came out of that rather than spouting platitudes about how nice it is to work together. The Kirk says time and again that it prioritises helping the poor and giving them a voice but in all the talk of unity I have not heard it said that those on the margins will not get the fresh start they had hoped for and that they are the ones who are now most likely to suffer when we return to politics as normal. Unity in itself has no purpose so tell us why it matters!
The debate between yes and no was characterised by many as "hope v fear" but in reality the vote turned out to be between the "haves" and the "have-nots". On Thursday night I stayed up to watch the results come in and it quickly became clear that they had nothing to do with political allegiance and more to do with how much we believe the status quo is working for the benefit of the community where we live. Here is a simple graph I made which shows the percentage of yes voters in each local authority, with the local authorities ordered according to their Scottish Index of Multiple Deprivation 2012 low income score.
This is an extremely crude way to try and look at just one factor which contributes to poverty but it was the only ranking by local authority I could find. There are a few outliers which can be attributed mainly to geographical factors, but apart from that we find a remarkably strong correlation. This doesn't mean that those who voted no didn't believe it was the best thing for those in poverty too. It also doesn't mean that the referendum saw a disproportionately large turnout among poorer areas. According to the BBC analysis as the votes came in there was an similar increase in the turnout in every local authority area compared to the 1997 referendum on devolution. All that is shows is that there was a much stronger vote in areas where many are struggling but that is incredibly important to take note of in itself.
We are consistently failing the poorest in our society who are desperate for a change in the status quo. As a country we are not divided as much by yes and no as by the inequalities which have been built into our society for generations. Until those who are better off take this seriously and stand in solidarity with those who are on the margins then we cannot claim to be making any real move towards healing and reconciliation whatever nice things are said in the days and months ahead. This doesn't mean that independence was necessarily the solution but going back to politics as normal can't be either.
It is not no voters who have failed the poor and the young, it is all of us. We have allowed politics to become a profession and to become disconnected from wider society. Political parties try only to appear to the average middle class voter to get themselves elected, forgetting they have a responsibility to every person living here. As a country we have consistently expressed our outrage over government policies we disagree with - illegal wars, tuition fees, the privatisation of the Post Office etc - but we are only ever reacting to decisions that have been reached after years of discussions and political manoeuvring. If we want politics to reflect our views then we must be proactive. The policies of political parties are made by those who are members and who try and influence their decisions from inside.
I consider the single most important thing I did during the referendum to be joining a political party, one which I believe is responsive to the concerns of its members and which will stand up for ideals rather than selling itself out for political power. I had been thinking about it for almost a decade but the last year or two made me realise that I can never really hold politicians accountable unless I engage myself. Already we are seeing that the "promises" made by politicians during the last few weeks are being torn up. Politics moves quickly and if we only ever concern ourselves with what we are told when there is an election or a referendum then we will never be satisfied with what our governments do.
It is surely the height of self-conceit to quote yourself but on a day when I am disappointed and struggling to know where positive change could come from it is good to be able to use words that were written when I was still full of hope. The rest of this post is what I wrote on facebook on the morning of the 18th September. The quote is attributed to St Augustine and I first came across it being used by Karine Polwart in a wonderful article she wrote almost 18 months ago.
"Hope has two beautiful daughters: their names are Anger and Courage. Anger that things are the way they are. Courage to make them the way they ought to be.”
Today is an historic day. People across Scotland will be voting for whether they are better governed within the UK or as an independent country. The right to a democratic vote on their future is one that many around the world have literally given their lives for. We are privileged to have been able to spend time discussing our views and then to make a decision not with weapons but with a pencil and a piece of paper.
However, my hope is that it is not today which Scotland is remembered for, but the days still to come when the world's media leaves but we can get down to the hard work of showing how a people working together can change their society for the better. Neither outcome offers a better future unless we harness the anger about the problems in our society which many have expressed and then have the courage to act together and effect real and lasting change.