Will people get engaged again?

Robin McAlpine – 21 October 2022

With the party political conference season now over, there was one consistent theme among all of the Scottish parties – poor attendance. What’s going on and does this tell us anything about the state of Scotland? Can we reverse this trend towards low participation?

I wasn’t at any of the party conferences this year but have now been able to make a fairly accurate assessment of how they went participation-wise from photos. Assuming that Patrick Harvie’s speech was the moment when you’d expect the highest number of people in the room, it was perhaps surprising to count fewer than a hundred people. This is for a party of government.

Next up in the list (from accounts of people who were there) appears to be Alba, with ‘a couple of hundred’ people attending. I’m told the last Scottish Labour conference had about two or three hundred people at it. That would presumably be bigger than the last Lib Dem or Scottish Tory conference, but not a sign of a particularly healthy political party.

Naturally, topping the list is the SNP, but there the story isn’t anything like a positive one. For the peak moment, Nicola Sturgeon’s speech, I counted about 700 people. For the speech by the SNP’s Westminster leader Iain Blackford there were fewer than 300 people in the auditorium.

To put that in perspective it is probably as well not to use the comparator of the period when the SNP could get 3,000-odd people into a room but their pre-referendum conferences. They would have managed more than 700 people for a leader’s speech. (The SNP currently has over 400 elected politicians and they all have staff – clearly even they didn’t all turn up.)

But it is quite important to note that this is not only a feature of Scottish politics. After the end of the last major Covid lockdown we noticed at Common Weal that we were getting a noticeably lower rate of engagement, just things like fewer social media re-shares, fewer people opening emails, that sort of thing.

It led me to ask others what they were experiencing and the pattern was identical (actually, compared to some, our participation held up pretty well). Across all kind of movements – environment, poverty, international issues – the pre-pandemic scale of participation just wasn’t being replicated.

So what’s going on here? And is there anything we can do about it? My guess is that two separate things are happening. I know that one of them is happening because there is just too much evidence of it to ignore.

What I think has been happening is that a population locked in their houses and focussed on civic issues (the sacrifices they were making to keep wider society safe) were retreating from the civic into the personal. I must admit that I did, or at least would have liked to. I found myself taking much more pleasure in small, personal interactions and feeling less excitement about big political issues.

In fact so much was I aware of this I started asking everyone I met about it – ‘are you feeling different, enjoying and valuing different things, struggling to remember why it was you did certain things before?’. I don’t think anyone ever replied ‘no’. 

It is the momentum behind the ‘Great Resignation’ and ‘quiet quitting’ (people leaving work they realised they don’t like, people simply not putting in voluntary overtime any more). We have been through conditions which made us reevaluate a lot of things.

My view was and still is that this will pass. My strange peak in pleasure in small talk over a pint at the rugby club or gossiping in the Coop while getting messages probably won’t last. I suspect the almost novelty value of it after two years locked away is already passing. There are massive, massive issues in our society and they’re not going away. People will wake up again soon.

But I also think there are other things going on in Scotland. I know for certain that a lot of you and a lot of other people in activist circles feel that a moment of great opportunity has kind of closed down. There was such an immense flurry of engagement and excitement before and after the independence referendum that, for a moment, everything seemed possible.

Even people who weren’t Yes voters felt for a time afterwards that Scotland might actually have the nerve to do some exciting and innovative things. There was massive interest in social policy issues for two or three years in its wake. It was like an invitation to get involved – and to believe.

Yet the number of conversations I’ve had which can basically be summed up as ‘what happened?’ are legion. The momentum seems just to have dissipated. The moment of belief is gone, it seems to me. We’re stuck in the drudgery of ‘just getting on with it’ again.

I think an enormous amount of this is about control. In every single political party there seems to have been a kind of fear that the memberships might be getting above themselves. Leaderships have cracked down and imposed old-style top-down discipline. Partly people don’t do things because they can’t do things.

The total paralysis in the independence movement is pretty obvious and people aren’t turning out so much because they don’t really believe it’ll make a difference. There seems to be some significant wind taken out of the sails of the climate change movement too. Perhaps COP26 in Glasgow just left people feeling that the game is up, that there is nothing that can be done.

But I think there is something more problematic underlying all of this in Scotland – we are a fundamentally, structurally disempowered nation. It is truly appalling. It really is the case that Scotland has the least local democracy of any comparable country, often by a factor of 20 or 30. The only people in Scotland who have any power seem to be bureaucrats.

Trying to get something done in Scotland is frankly futile. You have no power, your community has no power and the chances are that even your elected representatives have no power. I know so, so many great people and great initiatives who have really tried to do something good. I know how many have simply failed, broken against the endless rocks of the bureaucratic classes.

I know some who have succeeded, at least a bit. And I know just exactly how much it has taken out them, how hard they have to work for small wins, how many compromises they’re forced into on the way.

How do we expect our population to be engaged and active when it feels like everything is intentionally stacked against them? People don’t seem able to shape their own political parties (there is barely an SNP member left who likes the Growth Commission, yet that is what they’ve got, and meanwhile the policies they do vote for are just ignored by their own government).

You definitely can’t shape your own community like a normal European country. The constitutional deadlock has reduced Holyrood to a sad state of affairs where good ideas go to die and more goes wrong than goes right.

And yet, none of this leaves me pessimistic or despondent. I feel great frustration, but to feel despair I would need to believe there is no end to this, no way out. But there is. There is a big body of democratic theory that has pretty conclusively shown that participation in society is defined by two key features.

The first is the degree to which an individual thinks the thing that they are participating in matters and could make a difference. The second is the extent to which they personally can make a different to that thing. If they think something is worthwhile and powerful and can deliver outcomes, and if they thing that them getting involved can help make that happen, they will.

That’s why I remain optimistic. It is not that there is something wrong with the people of Scotland. Once recently they were given permission to ‘get above themselves’ and act boldly; and they did. Indyref created a real festival of ideas and hope – all by itself.

It’s not the people, it’s not the will, it’s not the lack of ideas or hope – it’s our politics and our awful centralised democracy. I believe strongly that the second the bureaucrats and the politicians stop suppressing public enthusiasm and the second we decentralise power in this country, it will result in a flood of community activist and real change.

How we get there I’m not currently sure, but I continue to believe with all my heart that this period is the aberration and that Scotland is just bursting to come alive again, given the chance.

8 thoughts on “Will people get engaged again?”

  1. Fiona McOwan

    Robin, I fear you are incorrect or misinformed about the SGP Conference. I was there and we had our biggest attendance compared to pre-Pandemic attendances in person and we were also running it as a completely hybrid Conference, so a significant online presence also participated.

    1. If the SGP has had its biggest conference yet, we should all be worried, because the party is in the grip of an extreme ideology. This week it voted to sever ties with its sister party in England and Wales for “transphobia”, i.e. allowing space for more than one point of view on the transgender issue. At a time of desperate climate and ecological emergency, the party that’s meant to be leading the fight for climate justice is instead obsessing over enforcing compliance with an ideology that denies biological reality. Terrifying.

  2. “How we get there I’m not currently sure, but I continue to believe with all my heart that this period is the aberration and that Scotland is just bursting to come alive again, given the chance.”
    I hope you’re right!!

  3. I’m afraid Robin you’re simply running idealism on a well worn track to a destination you can’t describe in any detail without sounding wishy washy and banal . Most of your precepts appear predicated on the assumption there is one Scotland in which a homogeneous group of people exist, currently restrained and prohibited by an external force from releasing their full potential. Currently we have in Scotland a devolved administration in which the ruling party continue to centralise control. Local government as a force for local change for good has diminished. Moreover we have to ask ourselves if having decision-making made at local level is a guarantee it will improve the quality of the decision? There is little evidence with the current Scottish Government that principle is true. I become mildly depressed when we need to rely on politicians to unleash the cork from the bottle. There is nothing prohibiting painters, writers, educators, engineers, philosophers and others from instilling our world with enthusiasm and the days of allowing politicians to be the independent variable in bringing this about really should be at an end.

  4. florian albert

    Robin McAlpine contrasts the ‘immense flurry of excitement and engagement’ around the referendum with the day-to-day situation where the ‘only people who seem to have any power are bureaucrats.’

    Which of these represents the real Scotland ? I would say, the latter. Bureaucrats have power because it is ceded to them by politicians. This was the case during Labour’s long domination and continues under the SNP. Scottish politicians have very few ideas and bureaucrats fill the vacuum. (For good or ill – I would say for ill – Nicola actually cares about the trans issue in a way she cares about little else.)
    As a result, there is no enthusiasm for more local government. You have to go back a very long time to find an era when
    civic pride was the motor for successful local government.
    Scotland works fairly well for a huge section of the population, mostly middle class. They are sufficiently content with the SNP’s record since 2007 to ensure its continued dominance. For these people, the bureaucrats are a peripheral nuisance; for the less well off, things are different.
    Middle class self interest is probably the biggest barrier to any radical action to create a more equal Scotland.

    1. You could replace middle class self interest with bureaucracy self interest and it still works. Scotland has an enormous pseudo delivery set of organisations with a considerable number of employees.

    2. Reluctantly, I agree with that, I know so many people who are against Scottish Independence who just cannot or will not see ther way we are being robbed by the Westminster government over things like energy (although that is beginning to affect their cosy lives well=insulated from the prdinary people who have to choose between heating and eating), and the3 scottish government id hardly showing itse;f to be competant at presenr, woth rows over funding for ferries and trains alomg with real concerns over health and education. Meanwhile the only people who talk about Independence want it through an impossible to win referendim or Plebiscite General Election that are lost even before we vote as the Franchise and media will 4nsure that outcome.
      It is difficult to find anything hopeful now and i find it hard not to give in to despair

  5. As Fiona pointed out above, Robin’s methodology was flawed because:

    1. He only counted people he could see physically present on the conference halls. Green conferences are hybrid, partially by Zoom. 6 months later I’m remotely attending the SGP Spring Conference via Zoom – this is the smaller of our two annual conferences. I can see about 70 people in the brief video shot of the audience. This crops off the sides and back, so there are more than that in the room. There are another 320 people attending online with me, so around 400 total.

    2. He also assumes that keynote speeches by leaders attract the biggest audience. This might be true of parties that have leadership cults, but in the Greens we operate with a decentralised mindset. I was at the Autumn 2022 conference, but I didn’t bother watching the leader keynote speeches live (I caught up with these later on Youtube). I was there for the workshop sessions and voting on motions.

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