Why don’t we talk about power in Scotland?

by | 7 May 2024

As one community campaign fights on against the big power interests tying to take its park from it, we are offered a perspective to ask how power works in Scotland - and why we talk about it so little

First published by Common Weal

My biggest problem with what became the modern interpretation of socialism was not what was there but what there wasn’t. Redistribution of wealth – brilliant, we need that. Redistribution of life experience (the equalities agenda) – brilliant. Redistribution of access to things like culture or services like health – brilliant.

What I always felt was missing was a redistribution of power. Too often my fellow socialists would talk as if all these redistributions were something that only a powerful elite could deliver for ‘the people’. I often wonder if this is the fundamental reason why socialism didn’t really win.

The case, indeed the need, for a redistribution of power in our society is highlighted again by my friends at the St Fittick’s Park campaign, who have just managed to win the right to proceed with a judicial review that could stop the park being taken away from the community.

If you’re not up to speed with what has been happening to the community of Torry in Aberdeen, it is worth catching up with a quick refresher. For me this sorry story is almost like an object lesson in power imbalance in Scotland.

The short version is that virtually everything crappy that could be done to Torry has been done barr taking their park. Their natural bay was taken from them and turned into a commercial harbour. Their community was hemmed in by a major bypass. They got Aberdeen’s sewage processing works dropped on them to stink the place out.

And now work is underway on a waste incinerator which, quite remarkably and inexplicably, is sited only 500 metres from their primary school. No-one is even trying to pretend that this, one of Aberdeen’s poorest communities, is not being serially screwed-over. There is zero chance any of this would have happened in an affluent community.

All of this was done partly by offering a ‘this far and no farther’ promise that St Fittick’s Park (the only green space still available to the community) would be protected for the community. But that was just words; when Aberdeen’s oligarchs wanted it to try and rescue a bad investment they made in the harbour, virtually every official and local politician couldn’t run fast enough to take it away from the community.

There have been strong arguments at every stage that this proposal was proceeding illegally for all sorts of reasons including dodgy process, conflicts of interest, breaking of previous promises and really negative impact assessments on the health of local people. Yet in Scotland the powerful can wave all of this away and just take the park from the children anyway.

It is left to a community to scrape together the money to get a judicial review. That review quickly concluded that, yes, there is reason to believe that this scheme does not comply with the law. Had it not been for the tenacity of the campaign, the bulldozers would be in by now.

When you own space, the land, you shape everything around it – communities, economics, politics

There is nothing like enough of a debate about power in Scotland. When we do look at power we tend to restrict our gaze to official power, legally defined power. That generally means political power. But that is to miss the massive impact of soft power. It is soft more than hard power that is screwing over Torry.

There are endless ways soft power operates in Scotland. The most obvious form is probably political lobbying, and while small steps have been made to increase transparency, they are very limited and it is only transparency, not regulation or restriction.

What that doesn’t do is capture all the informal or structural ways in which commercial interests gain access to decision-making. Basically you can lobby civil servants in secret and you can ‘offer’ to ‘second’ people into the civil service and there are various other ways in which you can insert yourself into decision making.

Perhaps highest on that list is outsourcing. The Scottish Government now outsources so much policy-making that in many occasions you don’t even need to lobby government, you could just pick up the phone to whichever of the Big Four accountancy firms is doing it. After all, if you’re powerful it’s likely you’ll be a client of at least one of them.

Even internal policy-making is all but outsourced now. There are very specific reasons why the neoliberal revolution in government led to so many arm’s-length agencies, because that also means arm’s-length from democracy and accountability. It’s a little like tying public policy to a stake that predators can reach easily.

I could give you endless examples of this but perhaps the way that Zero Waste Scotland turned the Deposit Return Scheme into a pay-day for the private sector is instructive. It managed to come up with a scheme which would have privatised a large amount of recycling services in Scotland and the only debate about this was whether the scheme was legal or not, not whether it was a massive private-sector power grab.

Then again, in some ways an even more insidious form of power is through informal and social relationships. Yes, we could do with a much closer look at institutions such as the New Club in Edinburgh (get-together hangout of the elite), but it is probably often more instructive to look local.

It is local networks around about Aberdeen which are pushing the interests of business and against citizens, and there is no regulation and next-to no transparency or accountability. We see this again and again, clusters of interests operating quietly to ensure decisions are done and dusted before democracy gets in the way.

And even all that doesn’t get to the reality that ownership is power in and of itself. As most land reform campaigners repeat over and over, land ownership isn’t just income, it’s power. When you own space, the land, you shape everything around it – communities, economics, politics.

Even the politicians on the left get seduced by the idea that they are the solution to all problems and so need overwhelming personal power for themselves

Part of the problem with all of this is that redistributing formal power is fairly easy, but redistributing soft power is not. Formal power is defined usually in terms of democratic laws and procedures and those can be changed. Our communities are powerless, but a proper local democracy act could reverse that very quickly.

Soft power needs a more sophisticated approach. You need much better regulation, for example simply banning the revolving door in government. You need to tackle structural issues, such as land reform or industrial democracy laws. You need to create balance, to build-in ways in which countervailing forces can challenge congregated power.

And you need to change your own behaviours. You need to say ‘enough, no more outsourcing of policy – public policy for the public good, not the corporate good’. But this is a wide agenda and it would require long-term, real political commitment to do it. You can’t just introduce one piece of regulation, you’ve got to look for all the places where power exerts undue influence and assess what regulation is needed there.

You can’t change structural power or the power of ownership with one over-arching technical bill. You need your legislation on land reform, your legislation on industrial democracy, your legislation on economic monopolies and all the rest.

And you will be fighting against a civil service practice which will default to ‘but we always…’. It requires long-term vigilance to change behaviour in a large organisation. And it is easy to backslide, to see progress undone if you take your eye off the ball.

All of this is why I am such a fan of rebalancing mechanisms as a meaningful short-term intervention. If you have an arts funding agency which at times seems to have merged with a small number of giant, non-Scottish events organising corporations, democratise the decisions. Have an arts council elected by the creative community to balance corporate power.

If you have Health Boards that are given evidence of malpractice by senior staff members and they cover it up, abolish them and replaced them with elected Health Councils which won’t.

The truth is that Scotland may have left feudalism behind a long time ago , but how much have we redistributed power since? From forelock tugging at the laird to education policy still partly set by churches, Scotland hasn’t really had a proper reckoning with who wields power and how.

Sadly, as we saw, even the politicians on the left get seduced by the idea that they are the solution to all problems and so need overwhelming personal power for themselves. And today’s breed of largely non-ideological politicians, the technocratic approach is precisely what leads to the scandal of St Fitticks.

Which means I don’t have enormous faith that we’ll see any significant change soon. It means that it is those in Scotland who don’t have that power seem destined to be marginalised and weakened further and further – whether it is actually legal or not. We don’t talk about power enough – but we should.

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