The Divisive Scottish Referendum

Once again a monumental display of democracy will be tarred with the brush of being divisive.

It’s easy to drag up any old anecdote to bring a poorly founded argument to life. The neighbours no longer sharing a doorstep and a coffee. The brothers now drinking at different pubs. The 11 aside football team; now split and playing 5s. That referendum it was so divisive. The debate on a second referendum in the Scottish Parliament has been high on anecdote but low on facts.

When anyone plays this anecdote game, it’s just as easy to “prove” the exact opposite: neighbours, brothers and pals reunited, cry the other side with equal vigour. So to analyse the real outcome of 2014 and to put to bed the false claim of division, we must look at the impact it had on the most powerful of indicators: the social capital created directly from the campaign.

So I thought I’d call Robert D. Putnam as a witness. America’s leading political scientist, via his enlightening books Bowling Alone and Our Kids, should be able to shed some light on the “divisive” nature of political discourse.

Social capital is a form of economic and cultural capital in which social networks are central, transactions are marked by reciprocity, trust, and cooperation. It is generally perceived that a society which is high in social capital is lower in many of the ills of society. High social capital reduces poverty, illness and crime. It removes dishonesty, greed and deceit. In fact it does so much more. Perhaps the best way to describe it, is to search for a word that would sum up a society which is low in social capital. That word would be “divisive”

The “divisive Scottish referendum” campaign provided an exceptionally strong burst of social capital within Scotland. The following four examples score very highly on the social capital index:

High voter turnout – especially the youth vote

The turnout for the 2014 independence referendum was the largest democratic vote in modern political times in the UK; breaking a generational trend of voter apathy. Voter turnout is one of the key factors sociologists look at when judging the community engagement within a society.

It was the first time that the youngest adults in our society had the opportunity to engage in the ultimate act of democracy. Voters under the age of twenty had previously been the most difficult to engage. Social capital generated by the young can have a much longer impact on a society.

Birth of organisations

The campaign gave birth to scores of organisations including, to name but a few; Common Weal, Woman for Independence, Independence Live, RIC and Business for Scotland. Robert D. Putnam speaks of similar groups in the US as “a useful barometer of community involvement” and “one facet of social capital” These types of organisations are rich in social capital. The  social capital they create extend into the wider society.

New media outlets

During, and in a few months after the first independence vote, new media outlets, including a daily newspaper The National were born. New media gave birth to Wings Over Scotland, Common Space and Bella Caledonia. These outlets created a new way of reporting, engaging with, and making news. In giving a community a voice they greatly increase social capital.

Crowd Funding

Crowd funding is an internet based source of community funding and is one of the highest scoring ways to increase a society’s social capital. Almost all of the groups mentioned above, and many, many more have brought people together to support a common cause, and as a by product have increased the social capital in Scotland.

“Divisive, divisive, divisive” is already the calling card of the lazy hack and the politician set on division. That claim should be as easy to dismiss as it is to disprove. As every sociologist  or political scientist will tell you: no matter the result of the next referendum Scotland, through an explosion of social capital, will be richer for it.

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