Christopher Silver: Rising above party politics

CAMPAIGNING for something is more compelling – it’s more fun too says Christopher Silver

CAMPAIGNING for something is more compelling – it’s more fun too says Christopher Silver

With the pre-referendum party conference season now over, another Scottish independence milestone is behind us. Unsurprisingly, incremental movement in the polls aside, conference hall euphoria did not grip the wider Scottish public.

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This historic step towards the ballot box in September is unique in a far more significant way. When these parties next meet, they will all be profoundly changed by a referendum result that is becoming increasingly too close to call.

Though pundits are duty bound to home in on party gatherings, this attention masks a crisis of participation in the kind of politics these events represent. In the UK, membership of political parties declined by 35 per cent between 1998-2008, the biggest decline in Europe (other than in Slovakia and the Czech Republic).

Though the SNP is a notable exception to this trend, parties have an unfortunate habit of assuming that dwindling numbers must equate to a mass switch off from engagement in politics itself. In fact, the opposite may well be the case. As the Electoral Reform Society Scotland found in their ‘Democracy Max’ consultation from last year: “A persistent thread of debate was the failure of party politics, a feeling that political parties hinder rather than help the democratic process.”

For many, the independence debate is seen as a proxy war, another caustic rammy more akin to partisan mutual destruction than nation building.

The bearpit of Scottish politics may be vicious but the combatants almost always wear party rosettes. The sound basis of Scotland’s referendum debate is that its focus is not on a question of party politics. This fact has produced a new lease of life, an unfastening of old tribal constraints that lets our body politic breathe more freely.

For example, last week National Collective held its monthly Edinburgh Session, a free event in the loft of an Edinburgh pub. The line-up included discussion, performance poetry, a talk on Scotland’s burgeoning forestry sector, beat-boxing, and a slideshow on transforming Orkney into a container port metropolis. It wasn’t polished: the PA was a bit ropey, the seats weren’t comfortable and there were no standing ovations. But that’s not the point.

Similar events are drawing crowds all over the country thanks to a growing network of local groups in Aberdeen, Argyll, Inverness, Dundee, Stirling, Shetland, Edinburgh, Glasgow, Dumfries & Galloway and the Scottish Borders.

Building grassroots support is not simply about bringing together leafleting enthusiasts. Rather, it’s about the ability to mobilise and engage a broad cross section of the population through social media, public meetings, events, the arts: protest through participation.

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There is something here that the Scottish media often misses, not through bias, but because it is duty bound to look at the referendum through the lens of party politics.

Too often, it has been assumed that, as Scottish politics is partisan, so too must the referendum be reduced to a de facto contest between Labour and the SNP. Looked at more closely: groups like National Collective, Radical Independence, or Women for Independence show that Yes is defined by its ability to sidestep the political party as a way of engaging Scots.

Under the banner of Yes several generations of activists are coming together to discover that campaigning for, not against, something is not only more compelling, it’s more fun too.

National Collective will be taking its campaign to communities throughout the country, in a summer of unique events. The Yes campaign has been able to show, through the viability of the argument itself, that this is a conversation every Scot has a stake in.

National Collective’s stated aim over the past two years has been to “imagine a better Scotland”. This summer, as we head towards 18 September, we hope to live up to that aim. The hard work, that of building a better Scotland, begins the day after the referendum. «

Christopher Silver is a writer and filmmaker -