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A Point of View: Scotland and the politics of hope

A Scottish flag in front of the Houses of Parliament Image copyright Getty Images

Money and its influence may often be considered essential to politics, but it's the enthusiasm of voters that matters in Scotland, writes AL Kennedy.

Allow me to discuss the word scunnered. It's an adjective from Scotland. If one is scunnered, one is irritated, frustrated, weary - and one is also, somehow, revolted. The person, or thing to which you have "taken a scunner" is not just a pain in your neck, but also operating at or beneath the level of your contempt.

I'm mentioning this Scottish word because the BBC wondered if I might "do something about Scotland post-election". And since I've said the word "election" I may as well say "politician" too. And if you're currently experiencing a feeling of "oh no, really..? In my own home? From my own radio..?" - well, that's being scunnered.

And you'll be aware of how many voters in the UK seem to be so scunnered they can't even bear to vote - or so scunnered they've passed beyond cynicism and simply lost hope. And losing hope, politically speaking, does mean we stop participating, or even imagining the changes and developments which can keep societies vital. Then again, is it fair to blame voters for a weakened democracy when our political scene seems so toxic - the lobbying scandals, the fiddled expenses, the darker scandals which descend below even disgrace.

And yet, a significant percentage of Scotland's voters on both sides of the independence question currently seem intent on reverse-engineering a democracy by beginning with hope. They may not succeed, but even the attempt is significant. And, yes, this is happening in the country where I was born and once made my home, a country I love. And I currently live just next door, in England, which is next door to Wales and I love both those countries, too. I'd be excited by what's happening no matter what, because it involves exploring new models for political behaviour, applicable in any country.

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We're used to the idea that big money and its big influence are essential to politics. Parties can feel glamorous and American as they fill what are charmingly called election "war chests". For the General Election 2015, the major parties raised millions, if not tens of millions of pounds. This kind of expenditure can leave ordinary voters feeling adrift, uninfluential.

Or not.

Fighting seats in Scotland, the SNP have been noticeably effective using a different model. This involved harnessing the enthusiasm of individual voters. Being scunnered by the status quo is part of why over 100,000 people chose to join the SNP and give it usually modest monthly subscriptions, which - naturally - mount up. Additional crowd funding raised backing - typically of a few thousand pounds - for campaigns in specific seats. And a reservoir of volunteers could leaflet, knock doors, tie signs to harmless lampposts and so forth. If the SNP doesn't deliver, it leaves itself vulnerable to the mass desertion of all upon which it relies. If it's felt to be serving constituents, then maybe dodgy deals with moguls or expensive brand placement won't be necessary. That might not be your idea of thriving democracy - and the SNP may insulate themselves against fickle voters later by auctioning its principles to more and more big donors, but its current strategy does seem to show that every day people can effect real change using party politics in workable, peaceable ways to shape our society - that does sound quite like democracy.

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But what has provoked all this involvement - and the surge in various party's membership figures across the UK? For some, perhaps a simplistic yearning for anything other than the scunnering status quo has led to activism. For some Scots, the two-year run-up to the independence referendum provided an increasingly sophisticated political education. Debates, discussions, online forums, all kinds of activities proliferated. And although the internet is rich in nonsense, it can also dodge spin and offer source material, raw facts. There are those who find independence inspiring, others don't - but the referendum process in itself gave Scotland an unprecedented opportunity to imagine what it could be, how it could be led and where.

And the electorate understood their votes would genuinely make a difference, something that can feel unusual in an age of copycatting party machines and HD-ready pseudo-statesmen. Although party politics and its politicians did intrude and - quite frankly - whine for attention, they were outside their usual areas of expertise, and they and their mass media associates sometimes seemed not just scunnering, but oddly small, irrelevant. And remember that Scotland's local elections already include a form of proportional representation that makes nuanced voting and minority opinions worthwhile. This may also have fostered engagement.

The UK mass media may not be talking about Scandinavian democracies, or new economic strategies in South America, or Iceland's response to its banking crisis, or positive mass movements organised at the pace of texting - but in Scotland - and indeed across the UK - the electorate increasingly is. Scotland's result may suggest that savvy information sourcing amongst the public could make all that compromising with moguls and shaping of front page threats and promises increasingly pointless for politicians. Perhaps a country's political discourse can become reality-based, result-based, if increasing numbers of voters disregard anything else. Would that be a cause for hope?

And what if that discourse was based on respect? The referendum's qualifications for voting were based on an inclusive idea of nationality. If you were resident in Scotland, temporarily abroad in her service, or a recent arrival with a whole lifetime to spend there, then you could vote and have a say in her future. You were part of the project - simple as that. The execution wasn't perfect, but still I find this quite 18th Century, dynamic brand of nationalism refreshing in an anxious Europe eager for scapegoats and a world where leaders emphasise our differences in order to appropriate our power.

And in the 21st Century, nations may have to become more unified and robust. We're used to the idea that sovereign nations can no longer necessarily tax the monolithic corporations they host.

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Now provisions proposed for trade agreements like TTIP (Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership) would mean foreign private investors can sue governments whose legislation, they claim, unfairly impacts their profits. Investigative journalists have already felt an increase in profit-related legal pressure when trying to report on businesses. And now, for example, Australia and Uruguay are being sued by tobacco companies after requiring cigarettes to be sold in plain packs as an effort to improve citizens' health.

These and hundreds of other cases seem to foreshadow a contest between corporate identity and national identity for global stakes.

The idea of national identity as a living project, a democratically shared responsibility in an international context, is part of Scotland's radical tradition. That's the same tradition that saw Clydeside elect 10 radical MPs in 1922's General Election. It's said that a quarter of a million people - hopeful, interested involved - came to see the new MPs off, to sing and cheer, before they left Glasgow.

The little band from the North took their seats and shook things up. They kept some of their promises and didn't keep others. They were human. They helped create what became the Parliamentary Labour Party - a party which, until very recently, assumed the West of Scotland would remain loyal to it, no matter what. The Tory party's expectations in Scotland crumbled long ago and we all know what happened to the Liberal Democrats. Which brings me to the last lesson from Scotland - for any party and for any scunnered voter. In Scotland, the general election results showed that when politicians are held to have failed voters and an educated, hopeful electorate has created another credible option, the power of those politicians will fade away, because it belongs to the voters and is only ever held in trust.

However you vote and wherever, I wish you hope and - to paraphrase the song Both Sides The Tweed by Dick Gaughan - let the love of the people succeed.

More from the Magazine

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It's not about being able to tolerate the sound of bagpipes, or preferring Irn Bru to Coca-Cola, or saying "How no?" instead of "Why not?" Instead, it all comes down to where you bide - that is, live.

What is the essence of being Scottish?

A Point of View is broadcast on Fridays on Radio 4 at 20:50 BST and repeated Sundays 08:50 BST or listen on BBC iPlayer.

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