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by Andy Wightman
28 June 2024
Scotland has the least democratic system of government anywhere in Europe

The Scottish Parliament is marking 25 years in 2024 | Alamy

Scotland has the least democratic system of government anywhere in Europe

As someone who campaigned for a Scottish parliament, has engaged with it and served as a member of it, the 25th anniversary has left me rather underwhelmed. There have been plenty reflections and critiques from the great and the good. But there has been little engagement with the bigger question of whether the parliament has effectively improved democracy in Scotland as opposed to whether as an institution it is living up to expectations.

The creation of the parliament (I reject the notion of reconvening that corrupt, undemocratic and self-serving pre-1707 parliament comprising of male property owners), was a historic achievement and has been, broadly speaking, a great success. When I first began writing about land issues in the 1990s, I noted how our laws in this area were archaic and out of date. That was down in no small part to the fact that successive secretaries of state only got a handful of legislative slots in any parliamentary session. Coupled with the power of the House of Lords to frustrate laws in which many of them had a vested interests as hereditary land-owning peers, it meant that necessary reforms to Scotland’s laws simply never happened.

The establishment of the Scottish Parliament changed all of that by creating the space and time to address this clear deficit and ensuring that such reform was handled exclusively by parliamentarians elected by the Scottish people on a fairer electoral system, So far so good.

But how deep a democratic transformation has taken place in the past 25 years? This is where more reflection and analysis would be welcome. If democracy is about giving citizens more power, influence and accountability over matters that affect their lives then the parliament has arguably only partially contributed to that goal, and in many ways has made it worse.

Despite differences on the ultimate constitutional goal for Scotland, all political parties now accept the existence of the Scottish Parliament and the role it plays in making the government of Scotland more accountable to the people. Part of the reason that I and many others became more actively engaged in politics was precisely because a parliament in Edinburgh operating in an open and accessible way was, if nothing else, an easier institution to engage with than one in London with its arcane rules and procedures. 

But that ease has contributed to the increased centralisation of power in Edinburgh. Despite some important reforms to local government, its role, already fragile in the late 1990s, has diminished with many of its powers transferred to Scottish ministers. The National Care Service (Scotland) Bill is merely the latest example of this power grab and the council tax freeze another symptom of the dysfunctional relationship between local and central government. Indeed, Scotland has the least democratic system of government anywhere in Europe due to the absence of a genuinely local system of government. 

In 2010, I was visiting Norway and had a meeting with the chief executive of one of the country’s 354 municipalities. This was at the time when plans for a single national police and fire service were already being explored. How, I asked my Norwegian friend, did his small municipality of 2,500 residents manage to be responsible for fire and rescue services when back in Scotland we were proposing ending the limited local responsibilities that then existed?
He patiently explained to me the politics of cooperation. Yes, his council was responsible for the fire service but it was delivered by a cooperative arrangement with other municipalities. A new tunnel had recently been constructed and so another municipality joined their fire service as access was now easier. This cooperation exists for different services in different configurations. It is flexible but retains the important element of local accountability.

It is an example of what I have called the Lego-brick model of democracy whereby really quite small units of government can operate efficiently but still retain local ownership and control. It is notable that when the SNP in particular talks about Scotland in comparison to other small European countries, it seldom reflects on how in practice these countries have organised their affairs and how they are invariably far more democratic than Scotland. In Norway, residents you can walk down the street on a daily basis and encounter the local politicians who are responsible for spending half of their income tax payments. 

Strengthening local government also increases democratic participation, builds political skills and improves accountability. While the reforms to the electoral system have increased the diversity of representation in Scottish local government, the cadre of MSPs has increasingly been drawn from those whose careers have been almost exclusively within the political bubble. Given that it is practically extremely difficult for independents to be elected, only those citizens who are among the three per cent or so who are members of a political party end up as MSPs. Even among this number, the increasing control exercised by political parties determines who ends up on the ballot paper. The selectorate for such candidates can often be as low as a few dozen members in a local branch.

Amid all the analysis of the role of committees, legislative scrutiny, party loyalties and fiscal powers, there thus lies the more fundamental question of how to renew democracy as a whole across Scotland. The challenge for the next 25 years should be how to build a stronger, more resilient, and deeper democracy irrespective of whether Scotland becomes independent or not.

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