Ewan Aitken: It’s not about who wins – we all lose if truth is lost

These are extraordinary times. We are in the middle of an election where the very idea of ‘truth’ – the usual basis for democratic consensus – is being eroded.

Friday, 29th November 2019, 6:00 am
Whatever our circumstances, we can all be equal citizens at the ballot box. Picture: Greg Macvean

I am annoyed at the state of our political process these days – fake videos to portray opponents falsely; fake Twitter accounts claiming to be fact checkers but in reality purveyors of more lies; numbers and statistics simply made up and flung as political hand grenades, not to contribute to public debate, but to denigrate opponents in the eyes of the ­voters; claims made about opponents’ opinions, which have not one grain of truth but are seen as acceptable weapons of political engagement; bigotry rife at the heart of many of the political ­parties. It’s enough to make me wonder if voting is really worth it, which for me, as someone who’s been politically active for nearly 40 years, is a strange emotion to feel.

I remember the first time I was asking for people to vote for me, back in 1999 when I stood for City of Edinburgh Council, in what was then called Restalrig ward. The election was on May 6 and, despite an early dry start, the rain began to fall in the afternoon.

I was standing outside the polling station at St Ninian’s Primary school and I saw this older woman, whom I knew from one of the local groups in the area, who’d said she’d support me. I watched as she walked slowly through the rain to the polling station using two sticks and a friend holding her brolly. As she struggled up the three steps into the school (provision of access for people with mobility issues wasn’t as widespread as it should have been in those days), I put on my best new politician’s smile and said with enthusiasm: “Thank you so much Mrs XXXX for struggling through the rain to vote.”

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Ewan Aitken is the CEO of Cyrenians Scotland

She stopped and looked at me with what could only be described as a mixture of pity and anger. Drawing herself up to her full 5ft 2in she said: “Son, my mother fought every day for the right to vote – it’s her I am voting for, not you. There’s no way I wouldn’t come out to vote, no matter the weather.” That was me telt, good and proper!

It was a lesson about the value of participation in the democratic process, about what it took, and what so many sacrificed so we can participate, which I have never forgotten. At Cyrenians, we’ve been working with others to help folk who are not registered to vote because they have no address due to being homeless or in insecure or temporary accommodation get registered, so they can express their views as citizens too.

It’s a good principle and morally right to do. It’s what I would want to happen to me if I were in their situation. It might seem like such a simple thing and, in reality, may not make a huge difference to any of the eventual outcomes. But for those on the edge of society, it’s even more important not to feel one more thing has been taken away from them, in particular their democratic right to express their view on who should be asked to make decisions on their behalf about our nation’s future.

It’s also why the present political mess is so dangerous and why the impact of the actions of so many of our political leaders is so great. Their decisions walk on the graves of those who gave so much so we all can, at the ballot box at least, be equal ­citizens, whatever our circumstances.

This election is not just about who wins, it’s about what we all lose if in winning the very nature of our democratic process is destroyed.

Ewan Aitken is the CEO of Cyrenians Scotland.