The Shape of 23 Part Three: Scotland’s Democrisis

by | 11 Jan 2023

A disparate range of conditions have merged and they're undermining Scottish democracy. Unless this can be addressed the most likely outcome is perpetual government failure.

This series of quick looks at some of the contexts in which 2023 will unfold now turns to Scotland. Yesterday I argued that the UK is not a pretty sight right now. Scotland isn’t much better, and until we as a society realise this, we too will be caught in a cycle of failure.

The problem here is the state of our democracy, and worse than that the direction of travel of our democracy. Or perhaps the problem is that we aren’t having a serious discussion about the state of our democracy, or not publicly.

This I would encourage you to be clear about though; I doubt you could find a social or political scientist in the country who would tell you in private that they think Scottish democracy is in a good state. I doubt a single one of them would then go on to tell you that we have a government which is going a good job. People who study democracy are concerned about Scotland.

The consequences are very real indeed. Most people tend to think that democracy is a process of selecting a government every four years. That is a good indication of the problem, because the constitutional framework for Scottish democracy developed over 20 years by hundreds of respected people set the length of the parliamentary term at four years. With virtually no public debate or discussion, the Scottish Government turned that into five years.

That’s the point; democracy doesn’t stop when the public casts a vote. It is a perpetual, ongoing project that must be guarded with care. And that is not happening, for all kinds of reasons. The result has been bad government and bad law.

There are many causes of this but I want to focus your attention on four, all of which will shape the year ahead. The first is easy enough – it is the horrendous centralisation of Scotland. In the very simplest terms, any institution or body which can wield power independently of the Scottish Government and its murky world of unelected quangos and agencies has been systematically weakened over the last decade.

Local government in Scotland was already the most centralised in the developed world and is on its knees, constantly stripped of power and resource by the Holyrood regime. In the 1980s local government (and particularly Strathclyde Regional Council) was an absolutely vital counterweight to Thatcherism. There is no real counterweight to Sturgeonism.

Likewise the centralisation of funding means that the Scottish Government is in a position to withhold money from anyone (particularly in the NGO sector) who gives them any kind of trouble. Between them the NGO and quango sectors have actively avoided properly scrutinising the government in favour of money-harvesting.

How did the Scottish Government manage to persuade journalists that it is only ‘bed blocking’ and the flu which is at the heart of the problem and not losing 10 per cent of hospital capacity in the course of a few years?

That places a lot of weight on the role of the Scottish media, weight it is not capable of bearing. Look at yesterday’s energy strategy announcement. For those who only know about it via the Scottish media you might think something happened yesterday. It didn’t.

A few weeks ago the respected Climate Change Committee issued a remarkably blunt takedown of the government strategy. What was published yesterday was basically a restatement of the same plan the Climate Change Committee eviscerated, with one meaningless story take-away about ‘considering the possibility of a general presumption against something at some point’.

It was published at 4PM. This is purely a cynical media manipulation technique which makes it very difficult for journalists (as they are currently resourced) to get proper analysis and reaction. Had that been done the story they published would have been very different indeed.

Politicians have always attempted this kind of manipulation, but that now seems to be the primary focus of government. The First Minister times her entire work programme around deadlines for BBC broadcast, knowing that for some reason the BBC in Scotland barely challenges senior politicians.

She can say anything and almost never gets pulled up for it. How on earth can a self-respecting journalist report that the Scottish Government has provided £8 million for more social care beds (i.e. 213 beds) without contextualising that by pointing out that during the previous five years they cut 2,000 hospital beds?

How on earth can the Scottish public get a clear picture of why the NHS is in crisis if they are not properly equipped with information about the very recent decisions to slash capacity in the NHS? How did the Scottish Government manage to persuade journalists that it is only ‘bed blocking’ and the flu which is at the heart of the problem and not losing 10 per cent of hospital capacity in the course of a few years?

The sad answer is that newspapers have no money and damned few journalists (and BBC news seems allergic to asking difficult questions). The majority of the journalists writing up the energy strategy (nearly 200 pages, nearly 60,000 words) had their coverage online by early evening.

I can find no evidence that they were given advanced copies. They can only have written up these stories based on the press release and briefing. In a democracy that is truly pitiful. And now the public will have to wait perhaps six months until the Climate Change Committee eviscerates this strategy too.

Independence supporters are quick to decry Westminster, but if this government was operating in the Westminster system with its checks and balances and a properly-resourced media, it would simply not get away with this

So with little democratic infrastructure or media to hold the government to account, it rests on Parliament. But that parliament is almost becoming laughable. The First Minister seems inches away from just telling the Presiding Officer to shut her mouth and know her place. Parliamentary committees are expected to scrutinise unminuted government meetings based on the First Minister’s own account of the meeting.

Freedom of Information is being undermined, information hidden or ‘lost’, statistics routinely distorted by government agencies, parliamentary scrutiny avoided in preference for BBC-broadcast press conferences. The Scottish Government has been heavily criticised by the Auditor General and the Freedom of Information Commissioner for all of this.

But it shrugs contemptuously, because of the fourth factor; constitutional politics. The bulk of SNP strategy is based around suppressing criticism from pro-independence voices by dangling independence in front of them and ‘othering’ criticism from anti-independence voices as only that of bad faith actors.

Polarisation has worked very well for the Scottish Government but poorly for Scottish democracy. The Scottish Government knows its backbenchers will vote for what they’re told to vote for, read out questions they’re told to read out. It faces next to no internal scrutiny

This conjunction of issues – a centrally-controlled nation, an emaciated media, a powerless legislature and a polarised political culture – have combined to create the state of Scotland as we have it.

In 2023 that will be particularly important; this is the year a lot of chickens will come home to roost. It should have happened three years ago but Covid and its aftermath disguised a lot of what has been happening. In education, hospitals, local authorities, energy, economic development and much else the major, major problems Scotland faces were all looming in 2019.

This makes for very significant apprehension about the year ahead. Nothing is going well and no-one is going to miss the signs of real crisis all over the place in Scottish public services this year.

It seems very unlikely the Scottish Government is going to change strategy (blame Westminster, hide information, distort statistics, treat parliament with contempt, suppress dissent by promising progress on independence, bank on an underpowered media failing to hold it to account, relying on a payroll that always does what it’s told).

Independence supporters are quick to decry Westminster, but if this government was operating in the Westminster system with its checks and balances and a properly-resourced media, it would simply not get away with this.

In Scotland our democracy should also be kicking back. Sadly, the context of 2023 is equally likely that it is democracy itself which will take the kicking. Yet again.

The full series: Part One | Part Two | Part Four

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