What next for Scotland? Grey London CEO Chris Hirst on how to keep a nation engaged in politics

Chris Hirst

The Scottish independence referendum has been the most exciting thing to happen in British politics for a generation. It stirred unprecedented levels of engagement, record turnouts and suddenly made it ok to talk about politics, possibly because it didn't feel like politics.

Most people in Britain, myself included, breathed a sigh of relief when on the morning of 19 September we awoke to find our Kingdom still United, at least in name. While I believe the No's would have had a landslide victory had all Scots, not just people in Scotland, been able to vote, we are left with a country in which 45 per cent of people didn't get their way. So where do we go from here?

I fear the legacy of the Yes campaign will be one of division if we don't quickly begin the process of reconciliation and build on the many positive legacies of the vote, not least the unprecedented levels of participation. If only the Commonwealth Games were immediately after rather than before the vote, they would now become the perfect participatory, unifying and joyful experience; a balm for a divided nation, a one off event that would remind us all that we have much, much more that unites us than we do divides us. That is sadly not the case, so what are the options?

From here I believe this could go one of two ways. If you take a pessimistic view, Scottish (and English) nationalism will continue to rise, with internal divisions deepening in Scotland and a 'them and us' mentality entrenching. And, however it is presented, nationalism is dangerous, including, ultimately for its supporters. It is born of narrow self interest, is built around a clear charismatic leader and preys on a disenfranchisement that attacks the distant 'other' as the source of all woes; the essential message of all nationalist parties.

The first comments of Nicola Sturgeon (presumably Alex Salmond's successor) following the result, made it clear that she barely accepted this defeat and of course has a personal vested interest in just that position. Unity is clearly not in the SNP's interest. More moderate minds North and South of the border must act fast to find and clarify common ground as well as harnessing the energy and engagement the referendum enabled for the common good. Gordon Brown's witty, impassioned and at times spine-tingling speech on Saturday did just that.

If this happens, a more optimistic outcome is possible. The referendum will spark a period of intense political activity and what has the potential to be a very healthy debate about the United Kingdom across the whole country. Suddenly and belatedly during the referendum campaign, the rest of the UK stopped seeing this as a debate about a piece of land stuck onto Britain, but realised that Scotland was, in fact, indivisible from the concept of Britain.

This referendum was actually about all of us. In order to feel connected to something, you first have to acknowledge it, and the Union, for so many for so long an entity which attracted so little attention suddenly became an endangered and surprisingly fragile thing. And at the same time something we realised we cared deeply about. Why, we asked, should the SNP be allowed to so frivolously slander and rip it asunder? So the positive legacy of the referendum could in fact be a quite un-British pride in the Union and a clearer understanding of what each nation brings to the whole making us stronger socially and commercially.

The main political parties and their brands have, despite victory, fared badly. They have rightly been seen to be slow, unimaginative and lacking leadership. What's more, their top-down control and command style is out of touch, ineffective and out-dated. Today's world demands leaders who can unleash the power of their teams through building an open culture of entreprenurial initiative and bottom-top action. The leader must provide both clear vision and a culture of individual action and expression.

The referendum battle ground was on the streets and in people's hearts – a fact recognised only late in the day by the No camp. The No's heroes are those like Brown and Murphy, and even implausibly the Scottish Conservative leader Ruth Davidson, all of whom expressed a vision aimed as much at heart as head and spoke directly to voters in language they understood. The parties must learn to articulate a simple clear forward-looking vision rather than one aimed whilst looking over their shoulder, and to be able to galvanise debate at street level. What we have witnessed is the engagement that may result if this is achieved.

What is certain is that whether or not we devolve power to all the home nations or we extend the vote to 16-year-olds, there are clear lessons for all political parties about the extent to which people, especially large numbers of young people, will engage in a democratic process if the subject is made relevant to them and they feel their vote makes a difference. It would be a hugely positive thing for all of us if this level of engagement in politics could be encouraged and maintained.

What if every two years we picked a big scary question and asked the whole country in binary terms to vote on it, yes or no? Now that really would be exciting. And engaging. Next time, we're not going to let the Scots have all the fun.

Chris Hirst is CEO of Grey London

Chris Hirst

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