IMAGINE a great raffle of string, threads and wool, an impossible fankle. That’s pretty much how democracy seems today. Where does it start, where does it go, does it still matter? Let’s find the main thread among the tangle and separate it all out. Can we rediscover the really very simple and important principles? Maybe then we can re-establish why it is the most precious thing we have.

People who like to control others have never liked democracy. They find ways to impede it, make it difficult to work. They want us to get exhausted and give up. They want us to lose heart. More of us are powerless than are powerful and way more of us have less than those who have most.

When monarchs, chieftains and emperors were the norm, the little folks’ lot truly was a lottery. Whether you were born under a despot or a benign dictator was pure chance. Bloodline or brute force were the only two shows in town. And if it came to regime change, your part in it was at best submissive receiver of the edicts from above, or at worst as battle sacrifice.

What we have now – a battered, ungainly system of democracy – is truly the only alternative to those other rather stark options. We cannot rely on crossing our fingers and hoping our all-powerful leader is a benign one.

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Politics, we know, is when competing ideas on how things should work for all of us are argued for. That has given us political parties, the collective vehicle that offers us voters sets of different priorities, and at elections we get to choose what best matches our thinking.

Whether you think of today’s Scotland as a different country or not, there is no disputing that it once was a politically independent nation. Like all other nations, it was defined by geographical physical barriers, the sea, rivers and mountains. These ancient barriers have been overcome in modern times. Travel and communications are easy now. But, inevitably for centuries, the geography of the environment, in which largely static populations existed, was what shaped people’s attitudes. Whether you define this collective of humans as part of a country or not, what did evolve within those barriers were unique histories, languages, culture and values. In ancient times, borders protected against aggressors. We hope to have moved past that but nothing exemplifies more than today’s Covid pandemic the rationale for control of a border as a public health measure.

How easy or difficult it might be to exist from the basic resources of your environment has a bearing on the collective outlook of people. If it is hard to survive where you live, you will develop traits and behaviours that reflect that. Productive or poor land, difficult terrain for roads, abundance of fish, long winters, sunlight, or long periods of darkness, no shops, a poor bus service – these all affect the human occupants of a “country”.

Here, there were forests that could be felled to enable the factory industrialisation of the 1800s. There were massive people shifts to cities. Conversely, due to severe economic land policies and the Highland people’s lack of security, those communities succumbed population shifts. Mass emigration. You can still see today how population shifts within Scotland are triggered by the economics of survival, whether within cities or in the Highlands and islands.

In Scotland, our own peculiar circumstances have evolved our particular sets of values and priorities. These are what we would like to implement through democratic government to make life here not just about surviving, but about thriving.

The democratic deficit is what has frustrated Scottish voters for so long. This comes from many seeing their friends or neighbours in need, seeing their problems, the inequalities they face and wanting passionately to help. I’d challenge that no-one can enjoy the security of wealth, a comfortable secure home, money for nice things and holidays, if your friend down the road is unemployed, can’t feed themselves, is despairing and addicted to alcohol or drugs.

Our environment and our history have created difficulties specific to this place which we can all see around us and we need to mend. Most of us care.

The National: Scotland's First Minister Nicola Sturgeon, during First Minster's Questions at the Scottish Parliament in Holyrood, Edinburgh. Picture date: Thursday December 9, 2021. PA Photo. Photo credit should read: Fraser Bremner/Daily Mail/PA Wire.

Outside of the UK, Scotland can make its own decisions 

Irrespective of how many times Scottish voters choose their preferred set of values, they find they must accept imposition of wholly contrary values. Scotland is a tiny portion of the large voting bloc of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland. There are 59 Scottish seats out of a total of 650 at Westminster. Nine per cent of the whole. That kind of arithmetic means that as a population we are no better than the hapless subject of the omnipotent ruler crossing our fingers in hope that ours is a benign regime. Sadly not only are compassionate Scottish voices going unheard, they are being numerically drowned out, actively weakened, ridiculed and stifled.

This imbalance might not have been so harmful if, as a country, Scotland was engaging on equal terms with the other nations that make up the UK Parliament. But that is not how things work. The imbalance is further exacerbated by the House of Lords – a body which is not voted for by anyone. In the case of the Lords, there is no pretence at democracy. Political parties routinely appoint their own and reward their wealthy funders with seats. When representation can be bought, it is no longer representation. When seats are paid for, we do not have a democracy.

Giving ordinary little people the vote has always been resisted by those who want to control.

The history of the right to vote is closely tied to wealth and property. Only after the UK’s Reform Act of 1832 did men who occupied a certain value of property get to vote.

Only in 1918 after being conscripted aged 18 and surviving the bloody First World War did men over the age 21 get the right to vote. In that year women over 30 got it, too, but it would take till 1928 before both sexes had equal voting rights.

The National: Vector illustration of a fountain pen on a blue background with white letters below it..

WHEN democracy was conceded to the working people in 1918, it was done with mitigations and safeguards for the ruling elites factored in. The people might have their vote, but they could still be told who to vote for. That was achieved through control of the most effective means of shaping public thought – newspapers. The media would be the tool owned by the powerful that would shape the minds of the ordinary voter.

Today, add the internet, advertising and social media to the powerful influences used to “tell” voters who to vote for and you will see how easy it is to find yourself blinded, confused and used.

Those who would undermine our precious democracy now operate in plain sight and laugh and bluster as they do so. They comprise usually males who went to similar expensive fee-paying public schools, who then progressed to similarly expensive and prestigious elite universities and joined clubs and societies that reinforced their collective thinking and attitudes.

In those bubbles they also rubbed shoulders with others who bolstered their belief that they “were born to rule”. They knew early they were destined for power. Their bubbles scored short on empathy and compassion as human fundamentals of a fair society. They, the entitled, leave the poor and homeless to be picked up by charities.

Anti-democrats would have us believe that the UK is a functioning democracy. Instead, what has been created within the House of Commons is a system so complex, stultifying, boring and disengaging that most voters would be utterly forgiven for losing the will to live and switching off.

Recent events, however, have shown that even the rules that govern that archaic institution are being cynically cast aside to cement power for the entitled bubble of wealthy elites. What is dressed up as “tradition”, “pageant” and “pomp” is in fact a deeply failing democracy.

The National: A march from Edinburgh Castle to Holyrood  by Scotland's Independence Movement marking St Andrew's Day saturday
Pic Gordon Terris Herald & Times

The language of it all is similarly off-putting. It took a battle in the courts by democrats from all sides to have the “proroguing” – or shutting – of Parliament declared unlawful.

With every lie, omission, deflection, episode of playground barracking we witness, we become more inured to the scandal of it all, more despairing that decency can be rescued.

But it can. Scotland can do something. Bear with me.

Prior to the Union of the Parliaments in 1707, ordinary Scots folk were completely disenfranchised from the monumental decision taken to commit to a union with England. Neither parliament was representative in the way we would recognise it today.

A limited number of propertied Scots, some who were also paid (or bribed as others say), took that decision on behalf of their fellows. It is that rather tawdry historic process that ties everyone in Scotland to what might now be described as the unequal and skewed failing democracy of the UK.

While history cannot be undone, the Union of the Parliaments was never consented to by the Scots population at the time. And yes it was a different time, but we are all still bound to living with the fall-out of a decision “our betters” took for us and that we seem prevented from altering or removing ourselves from democratically. The democratic deficit.

The last, but by no means least, target of anti-democrats is education. “Democracy cannot succeed unless those who express their choice are prepared to choose wisely. The real safeguard of democracy, therefore, is education,” Franklin D Roosevelt said.

The more ground down, gullible and supine a population can be made, the more it is retained in survival mode and no more – too tired to read a book, anaesthetised with stultifying entertainment – the more easily they are manipulated.

Access to education, a right to education and quality education, is key to enabling voters to make good choices. Voters should be able to interrogate a tabloid or a broadsheet headline to see whether or not they are being duped.

As part of the collective grinding history of Scottish folk, education was the way out of poverty. There will be many Scots families with histories of the sacrifices made to enable a son or daughter to enter the “professions”. This is a shared value that remains within the psyche of people that have come to Scotland recently, fleeing inhospitable environments as migrants and refugees.

EDUCATION is now the proxy battleground for anti-democrats. The arena of conflict resounds with the noise of statistical ammunition. Competing scorecards, league tables, measurements and data.

Missiles of accusation are fired, stoked with numbers and percentages in order to howl failure or slippage of rank. Political prioritisation of competing values are played out within the school curriculum as attempts are made to neuter individual thought and exploration and replace them with rote recall and sterile measurement.

This war of values continues above, while below a massive iceberg of social deprivation and poverty sits. Beneath the shrill exchange of heartless competing figures is a sump of human misery. Decades of economic policy Scotland did not vote for have made the poor poorer and the rich richer. In and out of work deprivation needs mended in Scotland. We must do that.

Remember above all that we, the ordinary folk, are not born to wealth or privilege. For us, democracy is all we have. We can never buy or cajole influence. But what we can do, and where every one of us can help in some part, is whatever our skills, our brains, our hands, our grey-haired wisdom, our youthful enthusiasm, we can put all that to use.

When we unravel the fankle of false leads and dead ends, eject the unintelligible maze of impossibilities our betters would have us believe render us useless and impotent, we can assert that we can aim for better.

Scotland has been a country with a cantankerous history, of clever inventors and thinkers, ranting theologians, of difficult terrain, of hard work, poverty and dreaming aspiration. Perhaps this dugged wee corner of the world can still make a positive and meaningful contribution to humanity. Not as a poser strutting on a fictitious world stage but as a quiet affirmer of human values and a catalyst for restoring faith in democracy.

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There is no certainty. Life is full of uncertainty and problems which are there to be negotiated and solved. Let us use our tiny pure voices of reason. We can do that. We can welcome all to lend a hand or a thought to solutions as we restore our political and economic independence. Aiming for better is practical optimism.

So how’s the bourach going? A bit at a time, we just need to see clearly the core simplicity of democracy and why we need to re-establish it.

What we can do is put our shoulders to a wheel of rationality forged from our best judgment as individuals working collectively. We do not want to abandon anyone. Instead we want to share our path out of the raffle.

The best gift we can offer our despairing, hard-pressed neighbours, is our affirmation of a refreshed working democracy.

Consider supporting that and becoming part of it.