Learning, talking, thinking, dreaming: Some thoughts on International Democracy Day

Whatever the result of Thursday’s vote on Scottish independence, the referendum has given rise to a notable resurgence in grassroots democratic activism north of the border, with a corresponding increase both in people’s intentions to vote and in the blustering resistance of those in power who see increased democratic engagement as a threat. For once, people have a sense that what they think matters.

What could have been a dry, cynical and negative campaign – and, indeed, started out that way – has been transformed by a combination of community engagement, education, social media and the bullish refusal of Scottish voters to be cowed by the intimidation of parts of the establishment – all that and a very evident passion for democracy and political debate. The result of all this is that the people of Scotland have had the debate they wanted, not the one most mainstream politicians and the media wanted them to have.

I went up to Edinburgh a year ago to hear from some of the projects adult educators had set up in response to the referendum. Frustration at the quality and integrity of debate and the prevalence of negative campaigning was obvious. It was also clear that the debate the adult students I met wanted to have was not one primarily about economics – though everyone agreed that mattered – but one about identity. They wanted to know more – the lines of partiality driving the campaigning meant reliable information was in short supply – and they also wanted spaces in which to think about the kind of Scotland they wanted. Adult educators, through projects like the Workers’ Educational Association’s Talk Scotland programme, and the Edinburgh Active Citizenship Group’s series of public seminars, have been at the forefront of creating such spaces – filling a real gap and making a real difference to the quality and purpose of what has been, by and large, a remarkably civilized debate.

Time will tell whether this results in a real, long-term democratic shift in Scotland, with greater, wider political engagement from all sections of society and more power in the hands of citizens rather than elected politicians and the unelected moguls, corporations and markets whose influence comes at the expense of ordinary people. Whatever the outcome, it is to be hoped that the grassroots debate and argument the referendum has unleashed continues, and spreads to other parts of the UK. However, if that is to happen, I think we need two things: more political education and more spaces in which to discuss things that matter to people. Adult education is key to both. But we need to think about adult education as being about more than preparing people for work – and find ways to realise its contribution to wider democracy in creating spaces in which people can learn, talk, think and dream.

Many adult educators across the UK still see themselves as working within this social-purpose tradition, but most will acknowledge too that they are swimming against the tide. Social purpose adult education – which has its roots in the (middle-class) idea that working-class people need opportunities to engage fully in culture and democracy – has been in decline for decades, replaced by a crude but utterly pervasive kind of economic utilitarianism, which makes it difficult for us even to talk about the things we think are most valuable about what we do. Increasingly, the fruits of a liberal education – among them, an appreciation of the arts and culture, an understanding of science, history and politics and an ability to think critically and question norms – are the preserve of the privileged few. For the vast majority of everybody else, education, at its heart, means not much more than preparation for work. Adult education’s role is to correct the failings of the school system, to support people in acquiring new skills for work or to help them update old ones.

This is all hugely important, of course, and, for many, this sort of intervention can be transformational. I don’t mean to disparage it. But if we are serious about developing a genuinely democratic society, we need adult education to be about more than vocational training and basic skills. We need more than employability skills to turn around foundering lives and failing communities. We need imagination, creativity, bravery, resilience, mental toughness, as well as a range of practical skills about engaging with the democratic process, starting up businesses, building up networks, and so on. There is more to empowerment than giving people the skills and know-how to get a job.

The Scottish independence debate has shown, among other things, that people are not necessarily disengaged from politics – at least, not as long as they feel that what they think, and the things they want to talk about, matter. As any adult educator will tell you, with the right sort of opportunity and encouragement, people will set their own agendas. Yet one result of our highly stratified education system is a democratic deficit, in which the vast majority of people feel politically disengaged, powerless to effect change. Party politics is peopled by ‘experts’ who, in such a vacuum, are able to make policy without democratic mandate, justified by empty rhetoric and half-truths. This is some way from the kind of democracy for which adult educators sought to prepare the first waves of Labour MPs, many of whom were former students of the WEA. Genuine democracy is dependent on continuing, lifelong education – the sort that opens up possibility rather than closing it down. It’s all well and good knowing the right answers, but we need to be able to question too.

‘Politics is what makes us – it’s part of what we are’

As First Minister Alex Salmond launches Scotland’s Future, the Scottish Government’s white paper on an independent Scotland, I thought it timely to republish this article, written for the autumn 2013 issue of Adults Learning, which examines what adult educators in Scotland are doing to create new, more creative and construtive spaces for learning and debate in the run-up to next year’s referendum. Interestingly, for the students I interviewed, the central issue was not economics – which has been the overwhelming focus of the media’s coverage – but identity

Campaigning ahead of next year’s referendum on Scottish independence has, for many, generated more heat than light. Sensing a need for safe, impartial spaces for reflection and debate on the issues driving the campaigns, adult educators in Scotland have been creating a range of opportunities for people on all sides of the argument to come together and discuss the future of their country

‘It’s the biggest decision the Scottish people will have to take politically, maybe ever,’ says Andrew Morrison of next year’s referendum on Scottish independence. ‘There’s still 12 months to go, but I think this is the time to inform ourselves.’ Andrew is one of two groups of adult students who have taken part in Talk Scotland, a course run by the Workers’ Educational Association (WEA) in Edinburgh which seeks both to inform learners about the choice they face and to give them an opportunity – and a space – to think about the kind of Scotland they would like to see. Such spaces are in short supply, with often negative and divisive campaigning belying just how much people care about the issue and just how much depth and variety of opinion actually exists. ‘A lot of the campaigning – especially what is coming out of Westminster – is extremely negative and pretty ill-informed,’ says Sarah Kilbey, another Talk Scotland student. ‘People need to be encouraged to know, to think and to find out more. I was looking for something to help me get more informed and to look at the bigger questions. The course really made me think. It’s about putting things into a wider context and encouraging people to think out for themselves what the really important issues are.’

Sarah’s description will resonate with the many adult educators who see their work as part of a tradition which contributes to wider democracy by enabling people to think, talk and engage politically, and, by doing so, to create a more open, imaginative and inclusive debate about the kind of society they want to live in. ‘I hoped people would be helped to come to some sort of vision of what they wanted for Scotland,’ says Talk Scotland tutor Colin Campbell. ‘That, for me, was the main purpose of the course. There is a real lack of space for people to come together and discuss this kind of thing – sometimes it’s thought that discussing politics is bad. But it is so important that there is a space where people can listen to each other, hear other opinions and do that respectfully. That’s of vital importance to democracy, that experience of coming together and articulating political ideas.’ For Elizabeth Bryan, WEA Area Tutor Organiser for Edinburgh and the Lothians, such activities go to the heart of what the WEA and adult education is about. ‘We have always run political activities,’ she says. ‘It’s been part of our social purpose from the very beginning. And there’s a real interest and need amongst our membership who want to look beyond the publicity and debate between the Yes Scotland and Better Together campaigns. People are looking to learn much more and to consider the issues and the implications, to try to understand it better in order to make a decision. There has been a bit of nervousness around about teaching political studies at a very political time in Scotland, but what else should we be doing in adult education? That’s our role.’

While many have expressed dissatisfaction with the quality of discussion generated by the official campaigns, beyond the purview of mainstream politics there has been a genuine flowering of intelligent, creative activity and debate, with adult education at its heart. Talk Scotland is just one of a range of adult education activities underway in Scotland, from Scottish history projects to public lectures, but it has become an umbrella theme for a wide-ranging programme of adult education classes, workshops, projects and public events, run by a number of providers in Edinburgh. The first Talk Scotland course was piloted over eight weeks from January to March this year (a second course followed after Easter and a third starts this autumn). It gave students the chance to learn about how devolution and the Scottish Parliament works (it included a visit to the Parliament), to explore the main policy areas for which the Parliament is responsible, and to examine Scottish political history, using primary source material such as the National Library of Scotland’s political collections. The latter stages of the course focused on the kind of future students wanted for Scotland, and what would help achieve that – for example, a stronger union, further devolution or independence. The aim, says Elizabeth, was both to make students more aware and better informed about the Scottish political system and its history, and to ‘provide a place and a space for people to investigate and think and study politics, and Scottish politics in particular’.

There is a feeling among the students that Scottish history, and Scottish political history, in particular, has not been well-served by the Scottish education system, at least until the very recent past (the Scottish Government has sought to address this by ensuring Scottish literature is taught in Scottish schools and by giving history teachers greater freedom over what they teach). All too often, it has been left to adult education to teach students in Scotland about their own history and culture. Christian McWilliam, one of the first intake of Talk Scotland students, recalls that it was only through the WEA that she was able to study and discuss Scottish literature – ‘a chance I never had at school’. ‘The education system has taken our national identity from us,’ she says. Unsurprisingly, discussion ranges well beyond conventional party or campaign politics, taking in questions of value and community, justice and equality – but culture and identity (and the relationship between the two) are to the fore. ‘The argument is always geared to us not knowing where Scotland will be economically in 10 or 15 years,’ says Andrew. ‘But no-one knows what the UK economy is going to do in 10 years time. But that’s not the main issue. The issue is identity, it’s not economics. Economics is important, but the issue is identity.’

Fellow-student Steven Horton also sees identity as a critical issue, though from a different perspective. ‘I grew up in the English education system,’ he says. ‘We were taught that people who are English are English and people who are Scottish are British. So all the pioneering work any Scottish person has done is British. There is no separate Scottish history or identity that I was aware of as a child … I had to travel the world in order to meet Scottish people who taught me anything about Scotland as it is from their perspective.’

The course has brought together students of different political outlooks. Tony Galloway, who is a Conservative councillor and a member of the Better Together campaign, joined, in part, out of a curiosity as to why anti-Tory sentiment was so strong in parts of Scotland. But, within the group, political affiliation did not matter. ‘In our group it was obvious there were different opinions but we didn’t declare our positions,’ Andrew explains. ‘We managed to have the debate without saying I’m on this side or you’re on this side because it was to do with ideas rather than sides.’ Christian identifies a problem with conventional politics, and mainstream political culture in Scotland, which involves all the main parties: politicians no longer seem capable of expressing an opinion beyond the official line of their party. ‘The problem today is that no individual politician thinks for themselves,’ she says, giving as an example the poll tax, which was introduced in Scotland by Margaret Thatcher’s government ahead of the rest of the UK and which proved hugely unpopular. ‘That was the problem the Tories had. If any Tory in Scotland at the time of [the introduction of] the poll tax had thought to themselves, “What on earth are we doing here?” it might have been different. But I think the Tories lost their soul.’

Like a number of students, Christian sees democracy in Scotland as in need of renewal. ‘Bringing lots of different people together in one place used to happen all the time,’ she says. ‘When I was a child people coming together in a big hall to discuss politics was common. It was a great way to gather different opinions and to bring people together – from the richest farmer to the poorest farm servant – which is what we need now … We have to listen to all opinions. We have to take opinions from everywhere or we can’t make our own minds up. So many people don’t believe that politics affects their lives. People don’t think politics affects them and that’s why they are so disenchanted with everything. But politics is what makes us. It’s part of what we are.’ Encouragingly, the students have continued the debate outside of the classroom, with some setting up an informal group which meets every few months to talk politics. That sort of informal, discursive learning is integral to what the WEA is all about, says student Marion Dillon.

The Edinburgh Active Citizenship Group, which draws its core members from Edinburgh City Council, the Workers’ Educational Association and the University of Edinburgh, also offers an important, though more formal, space in which people can come together to discuss politics. Nancy Somerville, who works in Edinburgh City Council’s Community Learning and Development team and is a member of the group, recalls how it came to be set up, as a response to the resurgence of interest in democratic politics that followed devolution and the setting up of the Scottish Parliament. ‘There were lots of projects and courses happening in the city that were to do with democracy,’ she explains. ‘A community worker at Leith Academy thought it would be a good idea to get everyone together to share knowledge and experience, and our group came out of that gathering. We had the idea that our role could be to put on public seminars under the broad theme of active citizenship.’ The seminars, which focused initially on the workings of devolution and the new Parliament, had two main aims. ‘One was to give the public an opportunity to talk about current issues in a non-party political setting, and bring in experts to give their views,’ Nancy says. ‘The second aim was for the events to be participatory, so that some of the time would be taken up with the people who had gone to the event discussing what they had heard or questioning the speakers and putting forward their views and ideas as well. And that’s carried out right through really – finding topical issues and then making the seminars participatory.’

Since then, the group has put on seminars on a wide range of issues of topical concern in Scotland, from peak oil to prostitution, often attracting in excess of 100 people. The group has also put on hustings in the run-up to elections. The idea, says group member David Maguire, Principal Officer for Engagement and Involvement, Children and Families, at the City Council, is to focus on issues that aren’t being discussed in the mainstream. ‘We try to make sure those perspectives are to the fore. And it’s all done in a way that is challenging and doesn’t simply replicate dominant narratives or dominant views of the world.’ The group hosts two or three events each year, all following broadly the same format. ‘We always start with a welcome about the group, then an introduction to the specific session,’ says David. ‘We then have an input from a leading expert, commentator or analyst, or an elected member. There are always key questions the speaker is addressing. After they’ve spoken we break into groups so members of the group can debate the issues raised. That goes on for half an hour, though we try to make it longer. We then have feedback, which is done in an interactive way, bringing in the speakers but also other people from across the room. It ends with a thorough discussion of those issues. 

‘When it works well it is very engaging. There is a real vibrancy to the events. They’re fun as well as challenging. We always try to make sure one of the questions asks “What is to be done?” We don’t want it simply to be a talking shop. We don’t see our role as taking action – it is to make this kind of discussion happen. But that can be seen as quite a complacent perspective. So we try to incorporate that as much as possible. We don’t want people to go away thinking the world is a terrible place and the forces of reaction are ranged against them. We want to always have a sense of what can we do about it, as individuals, at a community level or at a city level.’ ‘We always have information sheets about the topic and organisations people can contact, websites to get help or groups they can join,’ Nancy adds. ‘We never want them to leave thinking, “Where do we go from here?”’.

Their latest seminar – the first of a series under the banner ‘The Big Vote’ – returns to the kind of major constitutional issues considered in the early meetings. The guest speaker was author James Robertson, who spoke on ‘What kind of Scotland do we want? And what is the best constitutional route to it?’, and the issues addressed included what we vote for, what we vote against and what kind of debate we want. Discussion covered the economic grounds for independence, Scotland’s history, both as an independent power and as part of the union, the need for impartial, trustworthy information and the centrality of culture and identity to the debate. Another seminar is planned this autumn examining the difference a yes or no vote could make, and considering whether or not Scotland requires a new kind of politics. ‘That’s the role of social purpose adult education, that broad role of adult education within civil society, playing a critical, questioning role of authorities and of experts and of power,’ says David. ‘There was a feeling that this was a real opportunity to reconnect with that. And that is a strong current in what we do.’

One of the themes of the Big Vote seminar was the feeling that the mainstream debate was poor and that impartial information was hard to come by. ‘People are struggling to get what they feel is balanced information, because of the way it is presented in the media,’ says Liz Highet, Senior Community Learning and Development Worker at Edinburgh City Council. ‘A lot of people are looking for it because they want to make up their own minds but they want something to base it on and they don’t know where they can get that from. One of the things that appeals to people [about the seminars] is having a politicianless debate – to have the opportunity to explore ideas and not have to go down one side or another, to listen and talk and share and weigh things up.’ Nancy agrees. ‘There’s quite a bit in the mainstream media that seems a bit sterile – independence will be a utopia or a disaster. But in fact there is a lot going on, on the ground and in other types of media. There’s a bit more mature debate, rather than scare stories or fluffy clouds and puppies.’ ‘People are looking beyond the mainstream for a more creative space for debate,’ adds David.

The group is run entirely on good will. There is no budget for the work, with seminars held in the City Chambers – ‘a building that belongs to the people’. The council staff who do much of the organising do it in the margins of their other work, out of a commitment to its value. ‘We all do this as part of our jobs but it’s no one’s sole job,’ says Nancy. ‘We’re all trying to fit it in somewhere, as a voluntary thing, really. Nobody is forced to be part of the group. Those of us involved are all keen to do the work and interested in it.’ With social purpose adult education in retreat in most places, the hard work and commitment of educators is critical in keeping this creative space alive. ‘In Edinburgh, and in the WEA, we have been able to keep that space,’ says Elizabeth. ‘But you have to make it. We still have a strong liberal programme here, but the referendum had given a focus for our activities. The Edinburgh Active Citizenship Group and the libraries are very good at offering public events and seminars. But certainly funding this work is challenging, and you often need to screw it into other funded projects. It’s difficult but we are working hard to maintain it.’ Nancy is in no doubt about the value of the work. ‘No matter what happens it is a really exciting time but if you look at the mainstream media it’s like the opposite. It is an opportunity to debate the big issues – What sort of Scotland do we want? What’s the best way to get it? It’s important that we give people the space to honestly debate these things, to raise questions and to get answers, outwith party politics’.