When does ‘the voice of the people’ actually matter?

I have never considered myself to be a European. To be honest, I barely even consider myself to be British. Call me a parochial old nationalist, but I am a Scot, and a citizen of Edinburgh; I am not a European, but I know where the land lies between Portobello and Joppa, though, if asked, I say I’m from Portobello to express solidarity with my brothers and sisters who live on the other side of the ‘Daisy Park’.

I voted to join the Common Market in 1975 for two reasons – firstly, because I was 18 and I wanted to cast my first vote and secondly, because my parents, sticking to the SNP line at the time, were voting against, and I thought voting ‘yes’ was a bit of a rebellion. I have, however, not been very interested in anything to do with the European angle in politics since, something I think I have in common with a great many more people than is commonly accepted: consider, for example, the turnout in European elections. Of course, I voted to ‘remain’ in the June 2016 referendum, because almost everyone I knew was voting that way, and Mr F, with his degree in Economics, made it pretty clear that he thought that only eedjits were voting to leave; in any case the SNP line was quite changed so I stuck with them this time. When the next day, the votes were in, Mr F was devastated, and I, well, I wasn’t all that bothered. But now I am very angry indeed, in a way I never thought I would be about anything to do with the European ‘project’.

Obviously, I’m angry because Scotland is being dragged into something it didn’t vote for – that goes without saying. But really I am angry because of all this cant about ‘the voice of the people’. Yes, that ‘voice’ spoke – it spoke indecisively and patchily about an issue that it didn’t understand. I don’t just mean the ‘no’ voters – I mean more or less everybody who voted. Just ask yourself, who actually does have a real grasp of the issues at play here: do you? I voted to remain because I am a middle class, ‘educated’ Scot, and more or less everyone I know was voting that way, but I didn’t really understand why. Who does understand the politics of Europe? The people of the United Kingdom (shortly, one imagines, to be even more disunited) were cynically asked to vote about something that the very vast majority of the population weren’t very interested in and didn’t really understand, because David Cameron feared UKIP and cynically believed that his brand of spin would be more effective than the other side’s. So everyone’s blankly left staring into an abyss created by confusion, stirred by the worst kind of political cynicism after a vote that ended up 52/48. Please don’t accuse me of condescension – yes, I expect that some people voted ‘no’ because they don’t like foreigners telling us what to do, but I don’t believe that many people – maybe 1% of those who voted – really and truly understand the issues, whichever way they swung. This is the kind of thing that we pay politicians to understand, and ‘the people’ don’t have the level of interest or knowledge necessary to cast a vote on it – this is not what referenda are for.

However, I do understand about the setts on Brighton Place.

In terms of the day to day life of myself and my neighbours that’s a practical issue that I can hold in my hand and really understand. For those of you not privileged to live in East Edinburgh, in this bit of town often compared to the French Riviera by…very drunk people falling out of the Ormelie Tavern on one of the thirteen balmy nights of the year…Brighton Place is a very useful road which connects Portobello to Holyrood Park and the south east of the city. In an accident of history it has setts – cobbles – instead of more modern road surfacing. These setts have, for a long time, been in a great state of disrepair: they are an uncomfortable drive, an impossible cycle (I imagine – this is a rare show of solidarity with those in Lycra) and a baby, in its pram, will wake and howl while the road is crossed. The road surface needed changing, so the Community Council held a referendum in 2016 of those directly affected and 57% of them voted to replace the setts with a standard road surface, thus saving 400k of council money (replacing the setts costs £1.2 million) and reducing the time the road will be closed (re-setting? 60 weeks). However, well, that wasn’t what happened – the miracle which is the heritage lobby intervened arguing, presumably, that climate change could only result in the reuse of the horse- drawn carriage and anyway….might it not reduce house prices? Given that Brighton Place is not exactly in the heart of the New Town, and is, in any case, rather dominated by huge pylons, one might think the heritage bird had flown, and that the 400k saved might have found a better use.

So, I ask you, when does the voice of the people count? Only, it seems, when it is politically expedient to tell the people they are being listened to, even on issues so astonishingly complicated their views aren’t informed enough to matter….again, let me make it clear, that’s people voting on both sides. When it comes to a road surface, though, well, at that point, things are too complicated for the likes of the small shopkeepers and young mothers who might have liked a quicker, cheaper, smoother life on Brighton Place.

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