May you live in interesting times
Everyone in the school wants to be friends with the kid who owns the trampoline. Everyone in the pub wants to be friends with the guy in charge of lock in. In the independence referendum every party wants to be friends with the undecided voter.
And with polls tightening, undecideds are more important than ever.
You could well be one if you are an unhappy Labour voter or a first time voter. You are likely to be one if you are a woman.
But with the race neck and neck any undecided voter is important.
It is an unusual – and exhilarating – situation, given that in most Westminster elections the key demographic tend to middle aged residents of middle England.
They have not been the working class or the young for a long time.
In the referendum every vote will count, there will be a huge turnout – dwarfing anything we have seen in our history – while the binary options mean that votes will not be split among competing options. It is pure democracy – a unique situation in British politics.
Writing in London Evening Standard, Irvine Welsh, described the feeling: “Something strange and beautiful is happening in Scotland. The country is reinventing itself from the inside out. People are talking about their futures as if they actually have them. It’s that exhilarating, intoxicating and occasionally exasperating phenomenon at work: welcome back participatory democracy. How these islands have missed you.
He continued: “Now Scotland, through the independence debate, is leading the way in the reassertion of the democratic ethos. The actual result of the referendum in September, while massively important, is less significant than the fact that this process has gained such traction. Whether Scotland votes Yes or No, its people have got used to having a say in how their lives are run, outside of the self-interested and morally bankrupt party system. The drive for more of the same will continue.”
The rise of national political debate, the unprecedented level of engagement in the business of change, is something to enjoy – not criticise.
But the challenge, still unaddressed by political actors, is how to handle the hopes that have brought so many disengaged people back into politics. What to do with the grassroots when they grow.
Scottish politics has never been so interesting, but if the momentum cannot be maintained – if the public become unhappy with the process or the outcome – it is no exaggeration to say it could disillusion voters more than any other event in Scotland’s history. The debate has brought people out of the box and they will not go back in easily.
A recent Yes poster promised that ‘independence is the only guaranteed way to reverse growing numbers of children growing up in poverty’.
If it is a Yes, they must be held to this. It is unacceptable for child poverty to be used as an electoral gimmick.
The proverb ‘may you live in interesting in times’ is famously dual edged – both a curse and a blessing.
If Yes does not bring the change it has promised, or if No sees a backtrack on the consensus over devolution/federalism then the undecideds will take it very, very badly. It would be a curse for the future of political engagement. But it is too early for that. For now we should just be happy that things have got interesting.