Scottish Independence and Participatory Democracy

09/02/2014 11:58 am ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

I've just returned from 10 days of travel with my family in Scotland. The "Yes" side in the battle over the referendum on Scottish independence, to be held September 19, is another example of aspirations for civic empowerment, especially among young people, appearing around the world. These aspirations suggest possibilities for the emergence of a movement for participatory democracy as a profoundly important alternative to extremist groups like ISIS in Syria and Iraq, or the Tea Party and right wing parties in Europe, recruiting young people desperate for some larger purpose in a world which seems increasingly crazy and dysfunctional.


I also came away convinced that more than elections will be necessary to birth a democratic movement with maturity and staying power.

The Yes Scotland campaign has similarities to the fight against a constitutional amendment which would have banned gay marriage in Minnesota in 2012, and also to the Obama race of 2008. In all three, the insurgent side -- Obama, Minnesotans United for All Families opposing the constitutional amendment, and the "Yes" campaign for Scottish independence -- had positive messages stressing civic empowerment.

The Minnesotans United for All Families campaign, described in an earlier blog coauthored with Hunter Gordon, "A New Minnesota Miracle," used a relational citizen politics which refused to demonize opponents, involved more than a million conversations, and stressed the message of people's right to control their lives, to marry whom they loved. "We learned that a politics of empowerment beats a politics of vilification," Richard Carlbom, campaign director, told my class at the Humphrey School of Public Affairs after the campaign.

Similarly, the Yes campaign's message is empowerment. "This is our moment, we can take matters into Scottish hands," said Alex Salmond, leader of the Scottish National Party, in the final televised debate with Alisdair Darling, spokesman for the vote no side on August 25. Sketching British government actions opposed by large majorities in Scotland, from moves to privatize the National Health Service to building the Trident nuclear submarine, Salmond called for self-determination. "No one will run the affairs of this country better than the people who live and work in Scotland."

The ground campaign of the Yes side also has similarities to the community organizing elements of the Obama campaign and the Minnesota United effort. "Both sides are trying to do social media," wrote Christopher Schuetze in the International New York Times August 22. "But the yes [pro-independence] side has been more successful."

Schuetze quoted a recent computer science graduate, Aiden Smeaton of Glasgow, who observed that "'A lot of it is very grassroots." Savvy social media efforts are complemented by local conversations, door to door efforts, cultural events and a variety of other community activities. Smeaton organized a debate at his house, with family, friends, and Facebook acquaintances. "People are talking about politics who wouldn't normally be talking about politics," said one analyst.

After the debate, Salmond stressed the yes campaign's "not-so-secret weapon," its community-based ground campaign. "We're fighting the most energising, electrifying, extraordinary campaign in Scottish political history," he told the BBC.

Everywhere we went people were eager to talk about the campaign. In Glasgow, I had a conversation with the clerk at our hotel. "The outcome depends on the 'missing millions,'" she said. "Working class people like myself, who don't often vote." She thinks it is very exciting, though she worries about the sharp divisions.

As we drove north through the Highlands, "Yes" and "No Thank You'" signs were all over -- and overwhelmingly on the yes side as we got further north. The hotel clerk had told me, "the Celts (Glasgowians historically made little distinction between Highland and Irish immigrants) are mostly for independence."

We also found thoughtful and worried "no" voters. In our bed and breakfast in a little Highland town, Granton on Spey, we talked with Gary and Sara, both recently retired from the Royal Navy after years of service, who were skeptical of the "yes" side. They argued that lowering of the voting age on the referendum to 16, was politically smart but a mistake, not acknowledging the naivety of 16-year-olds. Gary's personal story of his own changes from a wild kid who dropped out of school at 16 to a mature mechanical engineer gave substance to his argument.

In a hotel on Loch Lomand, the clerk told me she is a "no" voter -- her husband has been in the military for years. She worries about the effects on ship building of an independent Scotland, which could lose many contracts from England. "We need each other," she argued.

There were also signs of desire for civic empowerment across the divisions of the referendum. "There are such big problems," she continued, "like homelessness and the mess with the banks. How are we going to deal with those?"

I said the people will have to be involved in a deep way to address any of these questions -- or to build a real democracy -- regardless of how the vote in the referendum turns out. She readily agreed.

Overall participants on the Yes side seem upbeat. The clerk at an exquisite craft and wool shop in the village of Arrochar replied, when I asked her what she thinks will happen in the referendum, "I thought it was a sure no vote at the beginning, but the yes's have really been coming up. Now I think the Yes will win it." She was enthusiastic when I described parallels I saw with the Obama campaign, the message of civic empowerment and the enormous community ground game.

But past experience also shows the limits of electoral politics in generating lasting movements for empowering civic change and participatory democracy. Perhaps the most important question in the debate was asked by a young man in the audience. Remarking on the political interests of his friends and young people across the country, he asked how the political involvement seen in the campaign could continue.

Darling didn't seem to understand the question. Salmond pointed to the campaign itself

After 2008, despite impressive efforts of Organizing For Action, growing out of the campaign, around the Affordable Care Act -- a largely invisible but crucial factor in achieving the enrollment goals last spring -- the energies of the campaign mainly dissipated. In fact most Obama voters forgot his constantly repeated message that he would be able to do little, even as president, to change the course of the nation. Obama supporters soon began demanding he fix the nation's problems.

Aspirations for participatory democracy raise the question: How will civic empowerment find lasting foundations?

I take up this in my next blog on the crucial roles of free spaces in developing and sustaining empowering politics. Free spaces are middle spaces in community life, between large mass settings and private life, which people own and in which they can build relationships across differences. Free spaces create empowering cultures which develop public capacities and generate sustained hope for democratic change.

Harry C. Boyte, Director of the Center for Democracy and Citizenship at Augsburg College and a Senior Fellow at the University of Minnesota's Humphrey School, was co-chair of the civic engagement committee of the Obama 2008 campaign.