Civic learning and the referendum (plus how I voted)

A ballot box and a flag - symbols of the nation state

A ballot box and a flag – symbols of the nation state

There’s been a lot of self-congratulation over the quality of the civic debate during Scotland’s referendum. Some of this is self-serving puffery, of course, but there is also some truth in it – enough anyway for Paul Stanistreet, whom I respect greatly, to join the chorus. Away from the partisan world of the campaigns, a lot of people have sat with friends or workmates – as well as with strangers – discussing the sort of society that Scotland is, and what it might become.

I don’t want to romanticise this. The 22 bus stop has not, in my experience, become a focal point of englightenment rationalism; if we talk at all, it is usually to grumble about the weather or the litter. And the public debate over the referendum has also had a truly nasty, dark side; I have friends on both sides who have been threatened in the streets, for example; journalists claim they have been intimidated; terms like “racist”, “quisling” and “traitor” are flung around freely; people with opposing views are shouted down, property with the ‘wrong’ posters has been damaged.

Much of this is low level stuff. Personally, I have experienced verbal abuse from a Yesser in a white van who mistakenly thought I was wearing an England football shirt (he had the grace to apologise when he realised he was mistaken). And I was attacked for blogging about research funding policy by a unionist academic, not because of my analysis but because I am a jumped up ignoramus who should not write about important matters I don’t understand (no chance of an apology from her). So I see claims of a fabulous discussion as pretty implausible.

This isn’t to say that all the debate has been a horror show – far from it. I was particularly impressed by those who organised community meetings with outside speakers, recruited not from the campaigns, but from those with expert knowledge who might explore the evidence and ideas of the campaigns. David Bell, my former colleague from the University of Stirling and an eminent economist, addressed several such meetings. In my experience, they were sceptical of both sides, but very interested in an informed debate, and concerned over the hothouse atmosphere of the wider public argument.

Interestingly, these town and village meetings seem to have gone ahead without any involvement by public adult education bodies. A handful of courses on the background to the referendum has been held, mostly by the university adult education units and the Workers Educational Association, while local authority services continue their broader work on civic literacy.

Perhaps those working in the public adult education service decided that the risk of being branded a supporter of either side was too great. This is probably a wise decision, though it does provoke comparisons with the courage of those who organise adult learning in far more conflictual circumstances. And like everyone else, we only realised rather late in the day that so many people would want to know more about the background in which the referendum was being held.

But there is a problem with saying, as the European Adult Education Association tweeted this week, ‘Adult education can equip people to make an informed decision’. Public information has itself become a pawn in the political game. If anyone suggests that the public do not have sufficient information, there is a possibility, even a probability that someone will say that this is tantamount to telling Scots they are too ignorant to understand the issues.

So my overall view is that we have not seen the civic renaissance that Paul Stanistreet and others have welcomed, and that only a few courageous adult educators have stepped in to provide the kind of social purpose learning that is required.

As for my vote, it was a Yes. I’ve always intended to vote Yes, largely on the grounds that democracy is best served by making government as close to the people as possible. That doesn’t mean that I have swallowed the nationalist rhetoric, much less that I have bought in to the claims about equity and social justice that the Yes campaign adopted after its market researchers found how well these issues resonated with Labour voters. I don’t hate or despise those who are voting No. Above all, I don’t think in the wider scheme of things, one nation state more or less – in an era of globalised capitalism – makes all that much difference to people’s lives.

For me, this is a chance to open up the structures of government and try to influence their shape in the future, and to bring government closer to those it is supposed to serve. Of course, these are precisely the sorts of issues that our supposedly wonderful civic debate has failed to address.

1 thought on “Civic learning and the referendum (plus how I voted)

  1. Pingback: Adult education and the referendum | thelearningprofessor

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