The pure, bubbling water of democracy

I’ve had the good fortune to visit Israel and the West Bank on a few occasions. They were professional trips, but there was the chance to do a bit of sightseeing too. Actually, ‘a bit of sightseeing’ doesn’t do it justice. Better to say that I stepped into a time machine.

We went to Old Jerusalem and walked up the Via Dolorosa, said to be the route by which Jesus carried his cross to the summit of Calvary and which is now flanked by souvenir shops and cafes (I asked about the geographical veracity of the wall plaques marking the Stations of the Cross — my guide whispered that they occasionally moved with the shopkeepers).

We climbed steep steps to the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, which Christians believe contains the site of the Crucifixion and the Resurrection. At the Western Wall, we watched Jews push written prayers between its large stones, then wandered the short distance to the beautiful Dome of the Rock, from where Muslims hold that the Prophet Muhammad ascended to heaven. It was all, inevitably, deeply affecting and sensorily overwhelming.

But there is more recent history to contend with. The ancient gates of the Old City display bullet holes from the Arab-Israeli War of 1948; Israel’s Holocaust memorial, Yad Vashem, is a shattering experience. When we crossed into the West Bank, into Ramallah, through the tall, grey security wall and checkpoint guarded by armed soldiers, the buildings were covered with murals of Yasser Arafat and other PLO icons.

On another day we stood on a hilltop looking out past Israel’s northern border into Lebanon, and had pointed out to us tunnels and rocket stores used by Hezbollah. We were taken through dummy tunnels used by the IDF to train for such combat – chilling, pitch-black holes with hidden ledges, booby traps and curtains concealing who knows what.

All of this informed our main purpose, which was to meet politicians, military commanders, diplomats, academics and activists from all sides. These were uniformly extraordinary people living each day in the furnace of Middle East politics. They were immersed in the detail of it all – from the elderly, wise-cracking Palestinian negotiator to the steely yet softly thoughtful Israeli cabinet minister; from the inspiring Arab-Israeli community organiser to the feisty leader of the Israeli settlers in the West Bank.

There were many more, and everyone we met seemed to have an argument and an endless stream of facts, both current and historical, to back it up.

I remember saying to one of my hosts that it felt like a land of novelists. I had never before encountered such an extreme level of intellectual commitment among so many — such widespread grasp of detail, history and narrative married with such deep passion, and so eloquently expressed. I found myself a little jealous, I admitted. Jealous? He looked at me strangely and I blushed: what an odd thing to say.

And yet I meant it, even if I might have expressed myself more clearly. As someone who has spent their adult life working around Scottish and British politics, it has not always been easy to feel genuine passion for the causes of the day. It is both the curse and the blessing of living in a rich, stable and secure society: the deliberations and policy disputes are often dry and theoretical, the stakes low, the anger synthetic; events rarely measure up to the fraught dramas of the Middle East, where the decisions taken can be the difference between peace and war.

The Israelis and Palestinians I’ve met are immersed in the minutiae of the peace process — land swaps, the division of Jerusalem, the right of return, water distribution and all the rest — because it is, literally, existential. They are profoundly connected to the past, to centuries of conflict and upheaval, to the unresolved issues that continue to kill people. No one on either side is able to take their life or the lives of their loved ones for granted. And, as the great Jewish writer Saul Bellow says in his novel Humboldt’s Gift, ‘death is the dark backing that a mirror needs if we are to see anything’.

In London last week, my ‘jealous’ remark came back to me. Everywhere I went, I was asked about Scotland’s independence debate. As the vote approaches, interest in the result is rising and the nerves of southern Unionists are clanging. I was asked repeatedly whether a Yes vote is possible.

I was also asked whether it is true that public meetings are selling out around the villages, towns and cities of Scotland, and that it is a major topic of conversation in pubs and even at football matches. Yes, I replied — and also in supermarket queues, on buses and trains, in schools and in universities. Thousands of people have been drawn into active political campaigning for the first time, giving up mornings, evenings and weekends to knock on doors and hand out leaflets and badges for both Yes and No.

Not only that, I added, but if more than 80 per cent of the eligible electorate votes on September 18 – and Alex Salmond for one believes this will be the case – it will be the largest turnout in Britain since the 1950s. A new generation has leapt into politics and an old one has recommitted itself. People who have never before felt motivated to vote will do so this time.

And as the politicos goggled at all this, I recognised the expression on their faces: it was jealousy. In our modern climate of falling turnouts and voter apathy, of weakening party affiliations and broad contempt for the political class, the independence referendum is a democratic defibrillator. There will be no war or death, but it is, in its way, existential. It stirs the breast and demands intellectual commitment – that novelistic grasp of detail, history and narrative – if it is to be done properly. And people want to do it properly.

I make no partisan point when I say that the challenge for Scotland on September 19 is to maintain and stoke this spirited civic activism. The rest of the UK must find ways to replicate it. If you want people to engage, put them in charge of their immediate concerns; put great gains and losses at stake; ensure that they feel their vote has an impact; take control out of Whitehall and Westminster, St Andrews House and Holyrood, and put it into cities and communities.

The referendum campaign has been tough going at times – infuriating, divisive and so very, very long. But as we enter the final month, let’s delight in the pure, bubbling water of democracy. Now, how do we bottle it?

(This article appeared in the Scottish Daily Mail on August 18, 2014)

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