Out of the referendum, springs a new movement of civic engagement


Martin Johnstone discusses the aftermath of the referendum and Smith Commission, and where Scottish civil society most go from here

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5th December 2014 by TFN Guest 0 Comments

Ten weeks is a long time in the life of a nation.

On 18 September, 3,619,915 people voted in the Scottish independence referendum. It was the largest voter turnout in Scotland’s history. On 27 November – ten weeks later – the Smith Commission was published: it had eleven members, eight of them men and almost all of them career politicians.

The current debate has inevitably focused on the proposed new powers for the Scottish Parliament. Do they go far enough? Have they gone too far? Or is the balance just right? In short, has the vow been delivered?

There are some things within the Smith Commission’s recommendations to be celebrated. The fact that the different sides have found such common ground is a timely reminder that much more unites than divides us. The proposal to extend voting rights to 16 and 17 year olds is fabulous. It gives us the chance to strengthen our democracy and for that democracy to be informed by the insights of our young people. 

Out of the referendum, springs a new movement of civic engagementMartin Johnstone, Faith in Community Scotland

The time has come, and the buds are already emerging, for a new movement of civic engagement in Scotland

There are other things to be regretted. The devolution of a relatively narrow range of tax-raising powers doesn’t give the Scottish Parliament the necessary levers to make our nation radically more equal. That the Westminster Government will continue to control the benefits associated with Universal Credit means, sadly, that Scotland does not have the power to overturn the disgraceful rise of job centre sanctions and the current toxic environment of welfare cuts.

Whilst these are vitally important matters there is, however, a much bigger issue at stake. It is not sufficient to transfer power from one parliament to another. What we need is a transfer of power not just to the Scottish Parliament but to the Scottish people.

Politicians, of all political persuasions, talk carelessly of how we must harness the spirit and energy of the referendum campaign. I was reminded recently that when we harness horses, we stick pieces of metal in their mouths and force them to travel in the direction of our choosing. That is the very antithesis of what needs to happen. What we took part in over the summer was not about politics or even about nationhood; it was about society, what sort of society we want to live in and what part we are willing to play in shaping it.

The time has come, and the buds are already emerging, for a new movement of civic engagement in Scotland. It builds upon the very best from both sides of the referendum debate; it’s inclusive and not simply made up of the usual suspects, and it needs to be a long-term task not a short-term fix.

Ten weeks is, after all, a short time in the life of a nation.

Martin Johnstone is chief executive Faith in Community Scotland