Democracy; reasons for Scotland to be sceptical

by | 28 Jul 2022

The Scottish Government's paper on the democratic case for independence is decidedly low quality - and badly undermined by the performance of the Scottish Government

First published by Holyrood

It is hard to find fault with James Mitchell’s response to the Scottish Government’s latest ‘case for independence’ paper on democracy. This dismal publication tells us nothing about what independence would be like, is bereft of any self-reflection and does little more than list some of Westminster’s many imperfections, much like an earnest Higher Modern Studies pupil might.

The paper seems scared to look at Scotland as it is and scared to think about what Scotland could be. This reflects the missed opportunity to show what a better democracy could look like right now and misses all the opportunities to tell what a better democracy could look like in our future.

How could these things have been done – the ‘show’ of a better democracy now, the ‘tell’ of a better democracy to come? And does the argument hold up that this would require independence? Let’s see.

If this current Scottish Government had been serious about strengthening our democracy, it should have started by not making things worse. It has taken a much more evasive approach to Freedom of Information than any other administration with one in seven cases not being responded to in the legally required timetable.

It could have stopped deliberately obstructing Freedom of Information it knew it was legally required to reveal. It could make sure all information is made public – at the moment many FoI responses are sent to the person who submitted them but not published.

It could lose its bad habit of ‘misplacing’ government documents it seems to fear could be damaging. It could stop erasing all traces of previous information as it did with the initial advice given to care homes during the pandemic. It could stop making outrageous claims about not being able to publish the results of bullying inquiries into Government Ministers citing spurious data protection regulations. It could make much less liberal use of the redacting pen.

It could also ease off its seemingly reflexive habit of seeking to control all aspects of democracy and the public realm, not least through a never-ending centralisation agenda, the latest egregious example of which is its planned power grab over social care. It could stop undermining local government through a process of budget cuts and imposing unfunded new responsibilities.

Sadly, it could do all of this and more and it would only take us back to where devolution started from. That is hardly ambitious, but it is only a start to what is possible.

If this current Scottish Government had been serious about strengthening our democracy, it should have started by not making things worse

Arguing that the people who should make decisions about a place should be the people who live in that place would be more persuasive if you didn’t have the most centralised system of local democracy in the developed world. There just aren’t comparable countries whose local authorities are so big and distant from the places they serve – we effectively have regional democracy, not local democracy.

Scotland is the only major country in Europe where a town the size of say Kirkaldy or Hamilton or Stranraer or Dingwall have no municipal council. Fixing that is entirely in the gift of Holyrood. So is the voting system for local elections – whether you think Single Transferrable Vote is a good system or not, it is poorly suited to rural Scotland and it has greatly reduced the number of candidates standing in elections. All this could have been reformed.

That would take us beyond devolution, but no further than a normal European country. What more could be done? When Scotland’s devolution was first designed its designers did not want to create a ‘black hole’ effect where Holyrood would suck in all power and attention but where a greater plurality of voices were heard.

It proposed that there should be a Civic Forum to partner the parliament, a supported space where civic society could gather and discuss big issues, not just trot to the parliament to lobby or to the media to complain. It was undermined in the early years of devolution and was eventually scrapped by the McConnell administration. That could be reversed any time.

Yet even this far in we haven’t moved beyond the level of radicalism of the early 1990s when devolution as we know it was being devised. Much has changed in the literature on democracy since that time, not least with a much greater understanding of the power of participatory processes.

Here the Scottish Government will argue that it has innovated through the use of Citizens’ Assemblies. Sadly almost everyone from either side of this (participants or policy-makers) see it quite differently. Rather than change how government operates these were provided unworkable remits and then largely ignored, seemingly existing more to disguise the fact that government isn’t changing how it operates.

The scope for participatory democracy is enormous and has been shown to improve the quality of decision-making. Much greater use of Citizens’ Juries, Participatory Budgeting (also the subject of largely lip-service commitment from the Scottish Government), community-led planning, Citizens’ Assemblies and much more could easily be normal practice in Scotland. They simply aren’t.

If you really wanted to embed these practices you could make them a legal requirement when certain triggers are met, such as when a public appointment has to be made or on any occasion where a proposal is likely to impact significantly on a given community.

Even that isn’t particularly radical. At Common Weal we have for years been strongly advocating for the establishment of a second chamber of the Scottish Parliament to be made up of a standing Citizens’ Assembly made up of 100 people chosen at random to serve two years to hold the Scottish Parliament to account without the distorting effect of party politics.

For example, the use of patronage through public appointment has had a negative effect on Scotland’s democracy, so what if that power was taken out of party politics and instead given to the Assembly? It could openly interview candidates for public roles and pick on the basis of those interviews without the conflict of interests politicians bring.

Likewise public inquiries – the right to hold or withhold these lies with a government which is therefore able to prevent its own scrutiny. What if public inquiries were launched by the Assembly, not the Parliament? There would be no hiding place for politicians, no scope to hand-pick the person most likely to whitewash your errors.

Had even a proportion of the possible democratic reforms happened, the sloganeering around ‘Scotland doing democracy differently and better’ might have sounded less hollow

These are only examples of what could have been done and there is so much more that is possible, from a ‘Citizen’s Charter’ (like a Bill of Rights which was legally enforceable) to a ‘democracy academy’, a properly-funded centre which would support organisations, communities and individuals on how better to participate (a lack of knowledge of which can be a major particular barrier for the most disadvantaged communities).

All this could have happened. All this could have been the reality now. Had even a proportion of it happened, the sloganeering around ‘Scotland doing democracy differently and better’ might have sounded less hollow.

That is not to say that independence does not open up even more opportunities. The Scottish Parliament could have a much more proportional system of election than it does, more accurately reflecting the will of the public. An independent Scotland should and indeed must have a real written constitution to ensure all these rights are not in the give or take of over-powerful politicians.

We would be free of the not-very-democratic First Past the Post Westminster and the anti-democratic House of Lords, escape the undermining of human rights and the insidious laws designed to weaken trade unions and severely constrain public protest.

That and much more is outside our grasp in Scotland as things stand and it is perfectly legitimate to point out that we really could do much better if we were an independent nation.

But if you want to be taken seriously you really ought to explain how you would make things better, not just to assume it. And that is doubly the case if you have not only failed to take action to make things better but have actually made things worse since you took office.

Or let me put it another way; if you are complaining about power-grabs at the same time you are legislating for major power grabs and if you are complaining about a lack of a written constitution while publishing a paper that fails to promise (never mind explain the process for producing) a written constitution, you are inviting, and frankly deserving of, scepticism.

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