Opinion: Give everyone a say in Scotland’s future

Martin Sime
Martin Sime

Martin Sime is director of the Scottish Council for Voluntary Organisations, and writes a monthly column for The Caledonian Mercury.

The latest furore about the independence referendum highlights a rather curious fact. Opinion polls repeatedly suggest strong support among two-thirds of the people of Scotland for more powers for the Scottish parliament, yet all of our political parties seem to want to rule this out.

Much of what we hear about legalities and timing is nothing but shallow posturing designed for short-term political advantage, rather than long-term thinking about the type of Scotland we want to see in the future.

Nothing I have heard over the last few days suggests that our politicians want to move beyond rhetoric and party manoeuvres when it comes to our future governance.

The real issue with which we should all be concerning ourselves at this stage is determining what kind of Scotland we want to see. Our starting point needs to be a mature debate to get people talking and thinking about Scotland’s future with all options on the table.

What kind of country do we want Scotland to be? What ambitions do we have for ourselves, our communities and our society? What role and purpose should government have, and how and where should decisions be taken?

These are the questions that really matter and we need to create the space for a meaningful discussion that will help us answer them.

We should use the time between now and the referendum to debate and refine the choices, to improve understanding of their implications and to generate enthusiasm for participation in the poll.

This should ensure that people in Scotland are in a better position to make a decision in the referendum that is right for them and for Scotland. These hallmarks of a civilised approach to such a pivotal event are conspicuous by their absence so far.

This conversation ought to be open to people of all ages living in all parts of the Scotland. The wider the debate, the more meaningful it will be.

SCVO’s members have powerful connections across Scotland. They also have a strong appetite to play an active part in looking at the kind of society and country we would all like to see in the three years running up to referendum day and to focus discussion on issues impacting on their members, supporters and service users.

The third sector can play a key role in casting the net as widely as possible to maximise the number of people who make a valuable contribution to the debate.

Young people should be at the heart of this conversation, because they will inherit the consequences of the decisions we make – and, with the SNP’s plans to lower the voting age to 16 for the referendum, many of them may have the opportunity to play an active part in it. Yet many members of the Facebook generation are apathetic to formal politics. We need to find a way to engage them in the discussion about the future of Scotland.

Older people are about to become the majority, with many of them looking forward to decades of retirement – but their voices have been largely absent from recent discussions about the health and care implications of our changing demography when they should have been taking the lead. It’s time to hear what they have to say about Scotland’s future.

The unemployed, trade unions and employers of all sizes also need to make their voices heard. We need to motivate our ethnic populations and people of all faiths and none to contribute to the future of everyone living in Scotland.

Scotland’s future may be full of opportunities, but we also have to recognise our problems. Our economy is not working well and poverty is growing. Our public services need urgent reform at a time when public spending is under severe pressure. Inequality between rich and poor is growing and there is an ever-pressing need to create a more sustainable and low-carbon economy.

There are extremely important choices to be made, but before we reach that stage we need to build understanding and strive to promote the greatest possible degree of consensus around the issues which matter most.

SCVO is reaching out to build strong connections between existing initiatives and to develop new contributions. We want to listen and learn and join and contribute to an open debate which reaches beyond the usual suspects.

We do not have a corporate view. At this stage, we are aiming to open up rather than close down the options. We can only do this if more people across Scotland feel able and motivated to take part in the debate.

The hallmarks of a civilised approach to such a pivotal event are conspicuous by their absence from current political discourse. Is the future of Scotland too important to be left to the politicians? I think it is.

Let’s not miss this opportunity to ensure that everyone has a say in shaping all of our futures come referendum day.

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