Scottish Special 2: Attempt to hijack AV referendum

Mike Small reports on a campaign to get a vote on Scottish independence by the back door next May

Two sources of alternative news and commentary in Scotland are joining forces. The polemical online magazine Bella Caledonia and the nationalist news service Newsnet Scotland are collaborating in the run-up to the May Holyrood election. The first act of the new grouping was to announce that there will be an Independence Referendum on 5 May 2011.

The idea is for voters to write ‘INDEPENDENCE’ across the AV ballot, thus spoiling their papers. Spoilt ballots must, by law be counted. The plan – essentially, to force the British State to host, pay for and count a referendum they didn’t want to have – is groundbreaking in UK politics.
 While it may seem odd to enthusiasts for AV, Bella Caledonia believes that “in reality it is a minor electoral change to the Westminster system which will do very little to move towards genuine proportional representation.”

Scotland’s elections have been conducted by PR for over a decade, so a tweak of the Westminster system seems meaningless to many. 

The campaign appears to be resonating with people. Older activists remember the days when the Campaign for a Scottish Assembly was a hut and a fire on Calton Hill, or equate the anti-Trident direct actions with self-determination and the Committee of 100. Others remember the civil disobedience Poll Tax Movement as a force that helped to topple Thatcher or recall SCRAM (the Scottish Campaign to Resist the Atomic Menace).

Democracy and direct action are intimately linked and any movement for change works better when it has action to feed off. Time will tell whether it will work. What the campaign has done already is open a gap between those who think the British State can be reformed meaningfully by what are, I would argue, minor alterations to the electoral process, and those who think that more substantial and transformative change is required.

The collaboration between Bella Caledonia and Newsnet Scotland will go some way towards shifting the pro-Unionist bias that is embedded in the Scottish press and the wider UK media. Until very recently the new media was in the grip of the nihilistic writings of Paul Staines and the Whitehall-centric Iain Dale. Today, participative media in Scotland is stronger than ever – with a surge of high quality online content in the last year.

The riotous Indymedia reflects insurgent activist Scotland, the inspirational Bridge project represents grassroots community action, while blogs like Lallands Peat Worrier, Go Lassie Go and the blog of land reform activist Andy Wightman are collectively generating a vibrant online civic democracy. “Citizen Journalism smashed the Union” is a headline you’re not going to see on any newsstand tomorrow morning, but who cares? It is filling the gap left vacant by cautious vested interests and old media bogged down in defending the indefensible. This campaign not only demonstrates the powerful voice of new media. It is about democracy conceived as something better than that handed down every five years.

The campaign has been described as simple populist agitation. It’s true that there is no substitute for a real independence referendum. But what is important is that the widest ‘we’ owns this and builds this – beyond any one party. One supporter of the citizens-referendum is Ian Hamilton QC – the man who liberated the ‘Stone of Destiny’ in 1954. He wrote: “There are times when our country needs troublemakers. This is one.”

Full details of the Independence / AV campaign can be found here. This article originally appeared on the OpenDemocracy website here.

Mike Small is a freelance writer and co-editor of Bella Caledonia.

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