Lessons will be learnt…..democracy and political education

Last week included the International Day of Democracy and the dramatic climax of Scotland’s independence referendum. Education for citizenship, democracy and social justice has never been more relevant as politicians, commentators and the public rake over recent events and the implications for the future of Scotland, England and the United Kingdom.

Three strong messages have emerged during the Scottish referendum campaign.

  • People are interested in politics when debate is brought alive, involves them and when they can see that their vote can make a real difference.
  • Westminster politicians are seen as remote and disconnected from the public. This is not just a Scottish phenomenon.
  • People don’t trust politicians to keep their promises.

Analysis of the UK Parliament’s make up gives a clue about why Members of Parliament might seem distant from the electorate, as this diagram from “Elitist Britain” shows.

“Lessons will be learnt”, has to become more than just a mantra trotted out when politicians are short of an excuse or explanation. There is a role for adult education to:

  • encourage informed debate of political issues outside the narrow confines of political parties;
  • make sure that voters are not just informed, but are involved and active in exploring how democratic – and non-democratic – political systems work so that they can hold politicians to account;
  • support the development of a new and more inclusive generation of politicians who are more representative of the electorate that they serve.

ConcernWe might find some answers in a return to the principle of representative democracy, with people from communities developing the skills and expertise to stand for election by their local peers. Practical political education can support people to learn about critical thinking, communications, analysis, debating and public speaking skills so that they can become confidently active in democratic decision-making.

The WEA is one of thirty member organisations who have joined together in the “Democracy Matters” alliance to promote practical political education.  This graphic explains our shared aim.


The Scottish electorate has shown that there is an appetite for public debate and exchanges of views about economics, health, education, welfare, equality, employment, energy production, nuclear weapons and the issues that matter to people. They want to influence decisions that affect them and realise that our current political system is neither representative nor fully democratic. Surely a politician elected by  – and from – his or her community to be their advocate will be less remote than a career politician dropped into a safe seat to keep their chosen party in power.

It’s a long time since people have been engaged so fervently in political debate and the turnout in the Scottish referendum gives an opportunity to revitalise our democracy. Can we afford to waste it?

About Ann Walker
Adult education and lifelong learning specialist and campaigner. LinkedIn: http://linkd.in/1GI0QK1

4 Responses to Lessons will be learnt…..democracy and political education

  1. Peter Threadkell says:

    Xn interesting post On a personal level I was pleased about the No vote winning in Scotland but I was even more pleased with the massive turnout and the level of discussion about this issue . which shows , that with the right issue political discussion/ .participation can “take off” Watching last nights Downton Abbey set roughly ninety years ago we have come a long way from that period when the Butler had to ask permission from his master to chair a low level village committee but as the major political party leaders said” there is still a long way to go”
    “At the November AGM of the Eastern Region we are having a lecture currently entitled “What has Politics ever done for Us ? ” given by Dr Henry Tann ,Faculty of Education University of Cambridge Hopefully this lecture will act as a stimulus to furthe courses across the Region

    • Ann Walker says:

      Thank you Peter.

      Henry Tam is always an engaging and provocative speaker who will give plenty of food for thought. It should be a lively event.

      It’s interesting to reflect that 90 years ago, in those fictional Downton Abbey days, the WEA was promoting active citizenship and supporting working class people to take a more active part in an educated democracy.

      (I notice that you were thinking about the WEA even when you were watching television!)

  2. Thanks for the piece Ann which is very timely as I am meeting with my regional organiser this evening to discuss how we can respond to the current raising of political awareness in our local community as a result of threats to children’s services. I am a member of the Campaign for Women and Democracy and have been able to inform and hopefully inspire women to have a voice in my role as a WEA tutor.

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