That oracle of democratic enlightenment, the Electoral Reform Society, recently published an indictment of the EU referendum campaign. Although the report failed to attract much notice, it is worth recalling.
It lambasts the 'glaring deficiencies’ of that disgraceful charade, blaming both sides equally for the many months of misinformation. It fairly describes the entire campaign as 'dire’ and calls for a comprehensive (what it calls 'root and branch’) review of how referendums are run, including the appointment of a public body with the power to intervene when 'misleading’ claims are made. How that would work is not at all clear, especially when one person’s misleading claim tends to be another’s unadulterated truth. There may even be something slightly sinister about a committee of the great and good 'intervening’ in any democratic process, however inadequate the process. Better to rely on the BBC; except, in this instance, you couldn't.
A survey of the electorate conducted by the society did yield some disturbing results; these poll findings, rather than the flawed conclusions, may be the report’s main value.
As the campaign unfolded, people 'by and large lost faith in established political figures as opinion leaders’. The only high-profile figures who exerted an influence on voting intentions were ones who 'could be said to be kicking against the established order’ – namely, that triumvirate of chancers, Johnson, Farage and Trump. Voters viewed both sides as increasingly negative and many 'simply did not trust’ the key claims, notably Remain’s insistence that households would be an average £4,300 a year worse off outside the EU and Leave’s that an extra £350m a week would be available to the NHS if Britain quit.
The report, then, is fair enough up to a point. Where it enters the realm of the fanciful is in the 'stark contrast’ it seeks to establish between the awfulness of the EU campaign and an earlier 'vibrant, well-informed, grassroots conversation that left a lasting legacy of on-going public participation in politics and public life’. To what could the Electoral Reform Society possibly be referring? Why, it is to none other than the 2014 Scottish independence referendum.
Some of us – it is hard to say how many – do not remember 2014 in that generous spirit. Some of us dreaded each day of the grassroots 'conversation’ and went to bed depressed by the sheer vibrancy of it all. Some of us remember that friends, colleagues and families were bitterly divided and that the damage to personal relationships has never properly healed. Some of us remember 'Project Fear’ as the defining phrase of the so-called 'conversation’. Fear there certainly was; it manifested itself in the reluctance of No voters to put stickers in their cars or posters in their front windows for fear of being vandalised by the conversationalists. There was also, in the final stages of the campaign, an attempt to intimidate staff at the BBC in Glasgow in what the then leader of the Scottish National Party, Alex Salmond, saw fit to applaud as a peaceful demonstration in the great traditions of Scottish democracy.
These manifestations of vibrancy may have driven many open-minded people, including some broadly sympathetic to the nationalist case, into the No camp. To these people, what Scotland endured in the summer of 2014 was not a conversation in any meaningful sense of the word, but an insight into the possible nature of an independent Scotland. It was in some ways a rather unattractive vision.
But never under-estimate the power of myth-making. Scooping up the received wisdom of the fawning media, the Electoral Reform Society has decided that the Scottish referendum campaign was an unqualified triumph, the EU campaign an unmitigated disaster, when it would be truer to say that both were distinguished by the same intolerance and bile.
These are, however, mere expressions of opinion. I am more concerned about the extension of the myth into areas of fact. In particular, I do wonder how the Electoral Reform Society justifies its statement that the Scottish campaign has 'left a lasting legacy of on-going [which seems to be the new word for 'continuing'] public participation in politics and public life’. Outside the salons of the chattering classes, where exactly is this lasting legacy to be found and celebrated?
We’d better look at the stats. Although the turnout of 84.6% in the Scottish referendum was historically high, it begins to feel more and more like a one-off. In the elections to the Scottish Parliament in May this year, only 20 months later, it fell to a dismal 55.6%. The following month, for the EU referendum, the Scottish turnout of 67.2% was five percentage points worse than the UK average. These figures, far from confirming that Scotland is enjoying a lasting legacy of on-going public participation in politics, suggest the opposite.
But it is only when we examine the results of the most recent council by-elections that the assumptions of the Electoral Reform Society are exposed to ridicule. Down in the grassroots, Robin Sturgeon, the father of Scotland’s first minister, stood for the SNP in the Irvine West by-election for a seat on North Ayrshire Council. He was widely expected to win it. He didn’t. The result was variously hyped as a stunning blow and a humiliation for the SNP. It was neither. Mr Sturgeon actually won a few more first preference votes than his Labour opponent, but was defeated by the vagaries of proportional representation.
The real significance of the result was what it was told us about the state of democracy in Scotland. After the most high-profile council election campaign in recent history, one held in the first minister’s own backyard, only 20.9% of the electorate of Irvine West turned out to vote. It seems that Robin Sturgeon and his daughter have had nothing to say about this appalling level of voter participation, but it was intriguing to have the perspective of the successful Labour candidate, Louise McPhater. 'A lot of people are disengaged and have no faith in politics,’ she told the Daily Record. ‘I think people have had enough’.
Enough of what? Ms McPhater didn’t say. But maybe the Electoral Reform Society, authors of the nest of singing Scottish democrats theory, should get themselves down to Irvine, home of Nicola Sturgeon, and find out why eight out of every 10 voters stayed away.
It would be convenient to write off the Irvine West turnout as an aberration. But a month later there was a second council by-election, this time in North Lanarkshire, in which the SNP was again unexpectedly defeated by Labour. Kezia Dugdale said afterwards that 'the people of Coatbridge’ had sent ‘a loud and clear message’ to Scotland’s ruling party. But the people of Coatbridge had done no such thing. Only 23.6% of the people had voted.
What message were the remaining 76.4% trying to send? It is possible that the phenomenon identified by Louise McPhater – the disengagement from the democratic process, the lack of faith in politics, the vague feeling that people have 'had enough’ in some undefined way – was a factor in Coatbridge in September, just as it had been in Irvine in August. In that sense, Scotland is suffering from the same dangerous malaise as many other western societies. Only the Electoral Reform Society and the various nationalist propaganda sheets could be so deluded as to pretend otherwise.