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Alex Salmond: The Saviour of UK Democracy?

17/09/2014 11:25 BST | Updated 16/11/2014 10:59 GMT

During my time at university a friend stood for election as President of our student's union, eventually sweeping to victory with more than half of the vote share. A resounding victory you may think, but in reality it was anything but; less than 3% of students bothered to cast their vote.

Why was 'turnout' (the number of the electorate choosing to vote) so low? My own view was that students believed it did not matter; discounted beer and sports team pub crawls would continue no matter who was president. Simply put, nothing much was expected to change whatever the result. Student democracy it seems, is in an even more parlous condition than that of the UK.

Similar arguments have been put forward to explain the dramatic fall in turnout at Westminster elections. Apathy, a loss of trust, political triangulation, the battle for the centre ground, demographic change, over-centralisation and the rise of valance issues have all been cited as causes of the crisis of turnout in the UK.

Scotland is expected however, to buck the recent trend and to do so dramatically, proving that politics still has the power to capture the popular imagination. Turnout is predicted to be over 80%, the highest in any UK election since 1955. It will dramatically exceed the 2011 Scottish Parliamentary election (50%) and the 2010 General Election (65%) - despite that being closely contested and in the middle of the biggest financial crisis for a generation. It also far exceeds turnout for the referendum on electoral reform in 2011 (42%) and the total turnout for Police and Crime and Commissioner elections (15%).

Turnout is important for three reasons. The first is obvious; it can affect the outcome of any vote. Obama's victories in the US Presidential Elections have been put down to, in part, his ability to mobilise his voter base, hence Labour's interest in hiring David Axelrod, Arnie Graf and the Lib Dems licensing the Obama team's voter registration software.

Second, it helps to ensure the voice of all groups are heard. Typically, young people are less likely to vote, pensioners most likely. Therefore it is argued, political parties skew their policies to those that are most likely to vote, in turn, excluding those that may already be turned-off (see the current government's approach to the pensions 'triple-lock' and tuition fees, as one example).

Third, it legitimizes the result and provides the winners with a clear mandate. Democracy is nothing if no one chooses to participate and voters are not to blame if they choose not to stay home; democracy serves the people, its not the people who must serve democracy. As such, the blame for low turnout over the past 25 years should not laid solely at the feet of voters, whatever their reasons.

However, turnout for the independence referendum is expected be the highest at any UK election since 1951, proving that voters do actually care about politics after all, and are willing to engage with technical, as well as emotional, issues, when they are perceived to matter. Politicians, it seems, still have the ability to inspire when it comes down to the most important issue of all; power.

There is patently much at stake in the independence referendum - jobs, growth, pensions, investments on the one hand, national identify and Scotland's place in the world on the other - but it ultimately concerns where power lies and who wields it. Even the 'no' campaign is predicated on devolving greater powers for Scotland and it is for this reason that the turnout will be so high.

Whatever one's personal view of the case for independence or of the protagonists involved, we should commend Alex Salmond and the SNP for reminding us what a real, vibrant and mass political debate looks like. By offering the Scottish people a real alternative on issues that matter, he has energised politics north and south of the border. Whatever the outcome, the Scottish Government is going to have significantly increased powers in the near future.

One interesting question is whether such enthusiasm and vibrant public debate will be carried over to the General Election next May. In a challenging situation of inevitable cuts and potential tax rises, crises over Britain's role in Europe and (militarily at least) the wider world, the stage is set for an invigorated General Election campaign. Perhaps the promise of more localism could have a similar effect, if real power is being offered back to communities.

There is also an obvious 'other' choice on the table come next May, equally able to polarise opinion, and also concerning who holds power and influence. In eight months time we may be crediting a certain Mr Farage with emulating Mr Salmond and igniting interest in politics across the whole of the UK, though I'm certain not all will thank him for it.