Why politics is like particle physics
With the publication of the Scottish Government’s white paper last week came the much anticipated “facts” of independence and the negotiating terms for a post-Yes vote in September, plus of course a few manifesto promises from the SNP thrown in for good measure. Equally anticipated were the counter-allegations from the No camp of empty promises, certainty where there was none and uncertainty where they would rather there was some. In fact the counter claims were so eagerly anticipated that National Collective produced a white paper bingo sheet so we could all play along at home every time one of the Alistairs called it a ‘wish list’.
The amount of column inches and airtime given to the publication of Scotland’s Future, as the white paper is uncompromisingly called, has been enormous. But I worry that for all the media analysis of a Spanish Prime Minister’s posturing over EU membership or the Bank of England’s negotiating stance on Sterling, the ideas and debates that are really important for many people are being left behind.
There’s much made of the fact that somewhere between 10 and 20 per cent of voters are undecided and that it’s therefore all still to play for. I don’t doubt that, but the current focus on such issues as currency risks pushing those people further from the debate and driving them away from politics in general. The problem, I think, is that “politics” is just as alien a concept for many people as particle physics. So to use the argument that the independence debate and the politics surrounding it ought to be of interest may be just as ineffective as suggesting that people ought to take a more active interest in the mechanics of the Large Hadron Collider. Ask a disinterested voter with a quizzical look on your face why they wouldn’t want to hold the levers of political power and you may end up with the same reaction as if you’d asked them why they wouldn’t want to run CERN.
Such power has little relevance and is frankly rather frightening. Surely that kind of power should be wielded by someone who knows what they’re doing?
This fear, this nervous reluctance to take up the reins of power is symptomatic of a wide scale failure of our democracy. When power is so distant from most people and when it is used by a far off elite for their own benefit, it becomes alien and therefore alienating. One of the most interesting and depressing articles I’ve read this last week was by Derek Bateman, contemplating why it is that so many Scots don’t see why independence should be of interest to them, never mind something they might want to vote for.
In it he says:
“They see Scotland as not a country at all but the way it is seen from London, as a region with history and some differences but, like all subsidiary units, not an equal for the founding nation. It leads to disbelieving outbursts accompanied by furrowed foreheads about “Scotland… a nation. Don’t be ridiculous” sometimes followed with “I’ll emigrate if that happens”… They are not listening to the argument, as is their right, and they probably don’t listen at election time either preferring to believe nothing will change so why bother.”
So should we give up on people who hold these views and accept that large swathes of the don’t knows are in fact don’t cares? I think not. To return to particle physics and politics, I think there are two important things to keep in mind. Firstly, I’d argue there are more ways to communicate the many and varied ways in which politics touches all our lives than the methods at hand to communicate particle physics (though anyone trying would do well to look at what Brian Cox has achieved in making physics accessible). I’ve always had a fondness for the kind of approach that the Electoral Commission took in the 2004 European election, saying “politics affects almost everything, so if you don’t do politics, there’s not much you do do.”
But the second point is that it’s not enough to simply work out new ways of communicating the importance of politics. We have to change how politics works for most people. If you have a chance of affecting the outcome of something to your liking, you’re more likely to take part, simple as. For me, a Yes vote means the chance to bring power closer to the people and to take it from the hands of the self serving elite and trust the people to use it for the common weal. And whilst independence would give us the power to make that change, we don’t have to wait for independence to make some smaller changes in the existing balance of power.
We can all promote better democracy in our own lives to a small extent. Call for trade union or workers’ representatives on your board at work. Join a food coop and take a hand in what’s grown, sold and eaten by you and the people around you rather than letting the supermarket giants dictate your diet. Use your elected representatives to fight for the issues you care about and shout about it when you win together. These steps may be small, but the more we all take a hand in transferring power to the people, the more those don’t cares will start to care.