A civil referendum

Electoral Reform Society,

Posted on the 26th July 2013

The chances of Scotland having a high-quality and inclusive debate about independence just got significantly higher. The Office of the Scottish Charity Regulator (OSCR) has given charities and voluntary organisations the green light to campaign during next year’s referendum, whether on the ‘yes’ side or the ‘no’ side. The only proviso is that their campaigning conforms with their charitable aims.

ERS Scotland has long advocated the involvement of Scotland’s vibrant civil society in the referendum debate. When it comes to something as important as independence, the more voices that can be heard, the better. Scottish charities now have an opportunity to shape this crucial debate. They should be strongly urged to take this opportunity.

The danger with referendums is that the public is not provided with the space for an informed and constructive debate. Without the inclusion of civil society organisations, parties tend to dominate the campaigns. Research suggests that people, when faced with conflicting referendum campaigns usually managed by political party leaders, tend to take their cue from the parties or leaders they support rather than vote on the question itself.  And the effect of partisanship and negativity on both sides of a referendum campaign can make it hard for people to access high-quality information and argument.

That was certainly the case during the nationwide AV referendum in 2011. The debate was usually presented through the prism of party competition and not through serious discussion of the issue at hand. At times it seemed like the whole affair was a plebiscite on Nick Clegg’s popularity. If civil society organisations had been allowed to campaign openly for or against the change, the debate may have been given room to move away from narrow party-political concerns.

Now that charities have been given the go-ahead to enter the fray, Scottish people should expect a much higher standard of debate. And what’s more, this decision may well help to increase voter engagement and turnout. Voluntary organisations in Scotland have thousands of members, many of whom will be brought into the debate through charities’ involvement. Again, if the debate were simply dominated by the parties then those who do not feel any connection with any particular party would be liable to feel no great compulsion to join the debate.

The independence referendum is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity for Scottish people to engage with questions around the future of Scottish democracy. The OSCR’s decision improves the chances that the referendum debate will be as high-quality and inclusive as the independence question deserves. The decision should be welcomed wholeheartedly, and Scottish charities should seize this chance to make a real contribution to the debate.

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