The Missing Million Scots: What Do You Do When Democracy Fails You?

Gerry Hassan

The Scotsman, April 7th 2012

A causal observer might think that the Scottish political classes love consultations and going through the motions of public engagement and dialogue.

This is evidenced in the simultaneous UK and Scottish Government consultations on the independence question; something we have seen before with the ‘national conversation’ and the Calman Commission.

While politicians and their supporters invoke the public, no one seems to take cognisance of who is missing from this debate, who they are, why and what we might do about it?

Take the last Westminster election in 2010 for example. A total of 2,465,722 Scots voted – producing a turnout of 63.8%. That was down significantly from 1997 (71.3%) and 1987 (75.1%) and even more compared to the 80% turnouts of the 1950s.

These lower turnouts aren’t spread evenly across the country and nor is the decline. The urban, poorer parts of the West of Scotland and in particular, Glasgow are where participation is lowest and has been hit the most. In 2010, Scotland’s lowest turnout was in Glasgow North East (49.1%), which was a bit better than the collapse of 2001, when the lowest was Glasgow Shettleston (39.7%) and six of the city’s ten constituencies had turnouts below 50%.

The Scottish Parliament elections have seen turnouts of around 50% give or take a couple of percent since 2003. In the 2011 election, constituency voting saw, according to the House of Commons Library, 1,989,232 people taking part and a 50.3% turnout.

The lowest turnouts were again in Glasgow; the lowest in Provan (34.8%), followed by Maryhill and Springburn (36.3%), Shettleston (37.9%) and Pollok (39.2%). All of Glasgow’s nine constituencies had turnouts below 50%.

The forthcoming local government elections will be the first stand-alone local elections that have not been held on the same day as the Scottish Parliament elections since 1995. The turnout then was 44.9%; it would be doing well to reach near that figure this coming May.

Traditional politics are in crisis: 38% of people across Britain would choose an unelected technocratic government of experts. Glasgow’s turnout was 80.5% in 1951 and has declined to 40.8% in 2011, a fall by half from its peak.

Political parties are no longer the forces they once were. The popular SNP still only have slightly more than 20,000 members, Labour a mere 13,000 (once social Labour Clubs are taken out), and the Tories between 7-8,000. All of Scotland’s political party membership would be outnumbered by any Saturday at Ibrox or Parkhead.

There is a direct relationship between political engagement, inequalities and poverty. It isn’t an accident that the lowest turnouts are in parts of Glasgow and the West of Scotland and that turnout in these seats began to collapse post-1979.

Look at the picture of health inequalities: of the Calton ward of the East End of Glasgow and its average of 54 years male life expectancy, or the reality of Shettleston man, and not surprisingly it maps with the pattern of missing voters.

What would a Scotland look like which won back these missing people into our political process? It would look and feel very different, and might be uncomfortable for some.

If the Scottish Parliament election raised its turnout up to the recent 1987 peak of 75.1%: nearly one million Scots, 977,742, who currently do not vote and participate would do. Glasgow Provan, Scotland’s hotspot of apathy and disconnection, would go from having 19,185 voters turning out to 32,975 voters. The last Westminster election would see 436,718 more people participate.

Apart from the influx of energy and opinions that this would bring into our democracy, such a change would completely transform our politics and the assumptions on which they are based.

It would challenge the economic consensus and conceits of the last three decades which say that the best we can do is debate the effects of globalisation at the margins. It would say it isn’t good enough, as is commonly said today, that the poor will always be with us, or that they are somehow different from the rest of society as the language of ‘the underclass’ indicates. And it would argue that permanently writing off a huge section of our population as we have done for the last 30 years says something rather negative about society and democracy.

As we approach this decisive moment in Scotland’s history we have to confront the unpalatable truth that we live in a truncated, atrophied democracy which is more than happy to permanently exclude hundreds of thousands of Scots.

It does not have to be this way. It never used to. But to change things we need to start talking about the dark secret at the heart of Scotland’s body politic.

To change this we require a different kind of politics from the narrow economic and social agenda of recent years. We have to challenge the voices of official Scotland and listen to disruptive, difficult and challenging opinions.

Those perspectives won’t be found in the polite circles and spaces of public affairs Scotland, in the conference circuit of for example, ‘Holyrood’ magazine or MacKay-Hannah, which represent a narrow politics and policy discussions of insiders and institutions.

It will be found in some initiatives far removed from that world in activities such as the Poverty Alliance’s Scottish Assembly for Tackling Poverty, which has now been running for the past three years, and the Church of Scotland’s Poverty and Truth Commission. These sort of interventions aren’t like the public affairs world, one day events, but part of a process which nurtures and works with people before, during and after, making sure that voices are heard and respected, and not treated in a tokenistic way.

This is the sort of activity we need to encourage all over Scotland if our constitutional debate is to have real meaning and not be an arid, desiccated process of the managed, manipulated politics we are all too familiar with.

Doing this will require that resources, energy and enthusiasm are opened up to those challenging the narrow politics of the status quo. And that we recognise that those who have gained and prospered from the current state of affairs are not necessarily the best placed people to change things.

Andrew O’Hagan has written powerfully of ‘The Missing’, people who have been forgotten and a past unspoken. Why don’t we recognise the missing million Scots voices from our public life? We are all diminished by their absence, exclusion and silence, and if we want to nurture them back into our democratic process we need to radically change course.