Referendums, re-engaged voters and the demise of the spin doctors

Alan Staff takes a look at the political landscape post the Scottish referendum and asks "is honesty the new pragmatism?"

From whatever political starting point you come from in Scotland there is no doubt that the overwhelming sentiment expressed at referendum was for some sort of change, whether within or without the Union.

A newly invigorated and surprisingly knowledgeable electorate including a welcome younger cohort engaged in what has been dubbed a ‘festival of democracy’ which, in spite of the best efforts of elements of the media to dramatize it, was conducted in a civil and generally good natured manner.  What is impossible to ignore if you live this side of the border is the sense of anticipation and engagement with not just a nationalist or self-determination fix but also with many of the real issues that face our society and our future.  Everyone seems to have an opinion again, there is a deep seated distrust of politicians and political systems and yet at the same time people are signing up to political parties which are seen as alternatives to the established order in droves.  There is a buzz in the air which is not based upon the rhetoric of adversarial politics but on the demands of an empowered electorate for substance rather than sound bites.  People want to know not just what but how and why.  They are challenging empty promises, they understand more about economics than we might imagine and they are very cynical about high sounding political statements which cannot be backed up by proof.  This is a new hard-nosed, business savvy consumerised electorate who do combine both heart and head.  They get the reality of unsustainable “welfarism” as well as the injustice of rampant capitalism.  They have heard it all, every promise, ideology and dream and however much these things resonate with their own sense of place or world view they want someone to tell them how these things will be achieved, by whom and when.

The spin doctor politics of the last two decades or so, do not cut it any longer as evidenced by reactions to the recent Labour Party Conference as well as by the apparently surprisingly even referendum vote.  To be credible you need to be able to justify your statements, to put a cost on policy and a business case to back it up, even if it polarises opinion.  Constantly trying to appease the middle ground by ensuring that policies are sufficiently bland as to be unexciting for anyone is increasingly being superseded by a desire, even in the erstwhile politically placid centre, for something that will deliver change presented in a believable and practical manner.  Fudging it no longer works and I firmly believe that had the SNP been able to articulate more clearly how they intended to carry out their promises rather than presenting a string of assumptions which were easily debunked as being long on aspiration but short on substance, then the result would have been very different.  That a slightly higher percentage of the electorate remained unconvinced by these promises only strengthens the evidence for a growing need for politics to come out of the world of marketing and salesmanship and into somewhere more honest.  As a Christian I welcome this shift and hope it becomes a lasting trend.  Walking in the light is not traditionally a path to political career success, but it could just be that after years of spin and adversarial machismo people are seeing through the sham.  The Emperor’s new clothes are starting to look a bit threadbare; maybe honesty is the new pragmatism?

Alan Staff is CEO of Apex Scotland, a charity working with offenders and those at risk of offending, and is an elder at St John’s Evangelical Church, Linlithgow.  He has a background in community development, mental health care and social policy.

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