Scotland is better at democracy than Westminster – but that’s too low a bar

Three quarters of Scots feel they have little or no influence over local services. A coalition of campaigners is seeking to change that.

Willie Sullivan
18 June 2018

Image: Garbh Allt, one of the latest community land buyouts. Credit: Garbh Allt Community Intiative Estate

Scotland is a great teacher about modern politics. The politics is more open and inclusive than it is in Westminster – partly as a result of having ditched Westminster’s one-party-takes-all voting system. But being better at democracy than Westminster is not a particularly high bar.

Scotland does not escape the inequality, confusion and precariousness that is fuelling bad politics across the globe. Democracy is not only about elections: in Scotland we see a relatively vibrant political and activist culture, often challenging and at times belligerent in the face of concentrations of power. Still, we can do better.

Democracy is not only about elections – it is mostly about power. Jane MacLeay, the American trade union organiser, defines power as being “the ability to stop bad things happening to you and your community and the ability to make good things happen”. If democracy is about anything it should be about making sure that all communities have that sort of power. This might seem obvious – but it is not a conclusion we came to quickly.

In 2012, a coalition of campaigners including Common Weal, the Scottish Council for Voluntary Organisations, Scottish Rural Parliament, Galgael and others, began to try and work out what would make Scotland’s democracy better. We had a good starting point – Scotland’s 1989 Claim of Right drawn up by the Scottish Constitutional Convention, which asserts the sovereignty of Scottish people.

We wanted to discuss and begin to describe how this beautiful idea could be made a reality. After 18 months of public meetings, roundtables and a citizen’s assembly we produced a set of recommendations called Democracy Max.

The main idea is that democracy should work best locally – in the places we live and work, send our kids to school, dance with our friends, use the transport systems and create homes. The fact that it doesn’t is a demonstration that centralisation and ‘top down’ might work well for those on the top, but it seems to pull power away from most people and detracts from their ability to make good things happen for them and /or stop bad things.

Since then we have worked hard to learn from many communities across Scotland and experimented with different ways of helping people find that power. In 2015 this became a campaign to try and change the institutions and processes of government, as the present set up does much to hinder and not enough to help. The campaign was named after what we saw the best of those local community activists doing: “Acting as If You Own the Place”. Action at the local level included community land buyouts in the Highlands and Islands, Student Community Housing Coops in Edinburgh, The Fire Station Creative in Dunfermline, The Stove Project in Dumfries, Leith Decides in Edinburgh and many more.

Democracy is suffering a range of morbid symptoms – from fake news to alleged Russian collusion in our elections, from unscrupulous data harvesting to out-of-control campaign spending and rule-dodging. And power is centralised not only in Westminster but, for Scots – in Edinburgh.

Levels of local representation in Scotland are the lowest in Europe – leaving many feeling powerless. Back in 2016, research for Electoral Reform Society Scotland revealed 76 percent of Scots felt they had no or very little influence on council spending or services. This disempowerment was just another reason for campaigners to launch the Our Democracy “Act as if You Own the Place” campaign.

We need to understand the causes and the cures. Democracy develops and is remade in different places for different times.

That the government is consulting on a bill for Scottish local governance is a source of optimism, while people are challenging broken power structures across the board: from the #MeToo movement to campaigns for a fairer franchise and real diversity in politics.

Join us to try to understand these problems and to work at remaking our democracy to be the best version yet. We can make it through the democratic winter – a democratic spring might start first here, in Scotland.

To register for June 23rd’s ‘Democracy21’ conference on building a democracy fit for the 21st century, visit the Eventbrite page here.

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