Democracy is something you do – and can do better

by | 5 May 2022

It is now almost universally accepted that Scottish local democracy is in a terrible state but with a scepticism that there is anything we can do about it. That scepticism is misplaced.

First published by Common Weal

From academics to democracy experts, local communities to activist, small businesses to political commentators, constitution-builders to serving councillors, it seems that absolutely everyone now recognises that there is something deeply wrong with local democracy in Scotland.

It shouldn’t be necessary to repeat all the evidence for this here – Common Weal’s research has shown that Scotland’s system of local democracy is so out of step with the rest of the developed world when it comes to size, responsiveness and representativeness that it doesn’t really look like a system of ‘local’ government at all.

Nor will you be likely to need a primer on the way Scotland has been centralised and the way that its budgets have been dragged further and further in the direction of Holyrood and further and further away from communities.

There is even a good chance that you’ll have a decent working memory of how we got here – the history of regional government in Scotland resisting the imposition of Thatcherite policies in the 1980s, the collapse of the Poll Tax and the way that Thatcherite Scottish Secretary Michael Forsyth almost explicitly tried to neuter the power of regional and local government in a kind of revenge.

So what are we to do about it? Common Weal has a clear, strong proposal based around the idea of ‘Development Councils’ – project- and action-focussed local councils at the town or village level with proper powers and budgets. Others believe we can revitalise Community Councils, some suggest directly-elected mayors, some want to see the voting system changed, some just want existing local authorities to be given more power and budget.

It is possible to argue for ages around the strengths and weaknesses of each (mayors centralise power locally, Community Councils barely function in some places, local authorities as we have them do not lack their own problems – though it is hard to argue that the STV voting system has been an outright success).

We find ourselves in a situation where everyone knows something is wrong, everyone knows something ‘should be done about it’ and there are loads of valid suggestions about what that could be which could form the basis of debate.

So why do we see no progress? In fact why are things getting worse? The majority of the responsibility for this rests with the Scottish Government – in a top-down country, lower levels of democracy can’t reform themselves and certainly can’t make unilateral decisions to become more powerful. Only the Scottish Government currently has the power to fix local democracy.

We find ourselves in a situation where everyone knows something is wrong, everyone knows something ‘should be done about it’ and there are loads of valid suggestions about what that could be which could form the basis of debate – so why do we see no progress?

But it is a little too simplistic just to point the finger and say ‘it’s all their fault’. This was a sightly depressing conclusion that emerged from Common Weal’s extensive meetings and discussions with many groups when we were doing the Development Councils work. There is a real cynicism about local democracy in Scotland.

Why? There are probably a few reasons. First, older people we met with had direct or ‘folk memory’ not only of the District Council model abolished by Forsyth in 1993 but the preceding Burgh Council model – and the term ‘Rotten Burghs’ cropped up often. There were some dodgy practices in the more distant past and the District Councils themselves were seen as unresponsive.

Nor is disillusionment only a result of looking backwards. Another issue we picked up was that confidence in the cadre of politicians we have doesn’t appear to be very high. The fact that ‘more politicians’ seems to be such a toxic phrase for communities is telling.

But you’ll find that people everywhere moan about any bodies which make significant decisions about their lives – even the best systems of local democracy leave people to grump about potholes and parking spaces. So it’s not just cynicism about dodgy local councils from the past or duff politicians in the present.

It’s also about the ‘muscle memory’ of democracy. Like riding a bike or a hard day in the garden, if you’ve not been using a particular set of muscles and then you try and use them suddenly, it isn’t necessarily a pleasant experience.

This is said too rarely – democracy isn’t something you’re in, it’s certainly not something that is done to you and it isn’t something that just happens. Democracy is something that you do. This does not mean ‘you’ in the abstract, denoting a community or a region or a nation. It means, well, you. You are the citizen. The citizen has the democratic power. If all the citizens stop exercising that power, the power disappears and so democracy is effectively gone.

And in Scotland’s regional authorities (in all but name), large majorities of citizens simply don’t exercise their power. Below that level there is no proper power, no right to have a say in local decisions. The regional authorities are distant and ignored, the really local power isn’t there in the first place.

This leads to the atrophy of those democratic muscles. You quickly come to forget how they work, to assume that it is ‘natural’ that you live in a society where things are done to you rather than done by you. We may be reasonably diligent citizens of our nation but many of us don’t even know how to be a diligent citizen of our communities.

It is expected that you be ‘educated’ in why the economic system must be protected and how your personal finances work but to be educated in how democracy works or how to change your community or society is seen as ‘social engineering’

There was much enthusiasm for ‘flatpack democracy‘, the case study where a bunch of disgruntled local people (who mostly had never been political activists before) took over their local authority. It was a model it was hoped could be widely replicate – but it wasn’t. It didn’t lead to a ‘local revolution’ across the UK.

Why? I did a joint talk with one of the main instigators of the flatpack democracy movement and the answer is fairly clear. This was a group of mostly professionals who had a good understanding of bureaucracies and how they work. They had a bit of time on their hands and some management experience between them. They had the tools, time and confidence to take on a broken system.

And it was anything but a walk in the park. It was hard, demanding and at times tiring work. Right now in Scotland there are far too many communities which do not have easy access to those human and time resources – and no genuinely local authorities to take over anyway (the flatpack democracy team did not take over an entire region…).

It is why Common Weal rejected the idea of building upwards from existing community councils because they have the same feature – they are regularly in much better shape in affluent, comparatively time-rich communities and can be absent altogether in communities that face multiple deprivation. The ‘democracy muscles’ are not spread evenly across our communities.

All of this is why a crucial part of the Development Councils proposals (generally overlooked) is to establish a ‘Democracy Academy’, a publicly-funded initiative to help to build up the democratic skills and civic confident of the communities that need it most. (It would also be tasked to ‘retrain’ officials and policy-makers to get them into the unaccustomed habit of letting go of power.)

It is hard to state how important this aspect is. We are not a ‘learning nation’; there seems to be a tendency to be suspicion of steps that improve the quality of the civic skills of adults and generations have bemoaned how weak civic education in schools is.

This is a legacy of neoliberalism – it is expected that you be ‘educated’ in why the economic system must be protected and how your personal finances work but to be educated in how democracy works or how to change your community or society is seen as ‘social engineering’.

And it is a very big mistake. None of us can’t benefit from having our democratic skills sharpened and some of us would benefit very greatly from it. And that in the end is perhaps the problem; the class of people who can help communities develop the capacity to take power back for themselves would be the ones who currently have that power. They do not seem inclined to relinquish it.

There is no excuse for Scotland’s enormous democratic deficit. It can be fixed, both in legislation and in community support. When restructuring and reskilling are taken seriously and combined, the reasons given for not having a more powerful ‘local Scotland’ melt away.

Power is important. So is learning how to use it.

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