The arguments for change in the Scottish Parliament
Whatever the outcome of our parliamentary elections next May, we need a fundamental shift in Scotland’s governance. In an uncertain world, trust and meaningful engagement in our future politics depends on it.
In normal times – remember them – elections were about what parties might deliver on a raft of policy issues within their grasp.
At national level that most obviously meant economic prosperity, followed by health, education, transport, and the like. At local level, it meant the delivery of services on our doorsteps.
Yet despite the backdrop of a global pandemic, the 2021 election looks set to be dominated not by the stuff of everyday life but – again – by the constitutional future of Scotland and the UK.
That contest will take its course – and if the result is as widely predicted, the case against another independence referendum will be on a shoogly peg. But change is urgently needed whatever the ultimate outcome of that process.
The change we need is threefold: renewal and reform at Holyrood, significant decentralisation (not just to councils) and greater citizen participation across our political institutions.
Despite a decade in which the relationship between Holyrood and Westminster has hung in the balance, our devolved parliament has come of age. Now, as Chris Deerin wrote recently in The Press and Journal, “the practices of devolution badly need freshening up.”
Deerin argued, among other things, for changes to the committee system to make it a more effective counterbalance to the ministerial power, and for consideration to be given to Lord McConnell’s call for a second, part-time Citizens Chamber.
McConnell has suggested that could include council representatives as well as people active in other areas of Scottish life, to review the budget and comment on significant legislation.
The relationship between state and civil society is too often transactional and merely consultative
Reform at Holyrood may be overdue. But without decentralisation and greater participation it will not be enough to renew our political culture, let alone square up to the challenges we face. The case for change was made recently, and forcefully, by Gerry Hassan.
Hassan accepted, in part, the logic of centralisation during the pandemic, but threw down the gauntlet to those who would defend the status quo: “[In] a country with an atrophied, financially strapped local government which is barely worthy of the name ‘local democracy’, and an absence of powerful intermediate public institutions between citizens and the state, the Scottish Government’s capacity to reflect and understand the diversity of the nation is being severely stretched.”
The extent to which local authorities have been starved of cash and powers is contested. But formal commitment to change, on the part of the Scottish Government and COSLA, is not.
Phase one of the Local Governance Review, which concluded in 2019, agreed that more power should be devolved to local levels. There is a shared pledge to ensuring that “Scotland’s diverse communities and different places have greater control and influence over decisions that affect them most.”
Progress on phase two of the review has been set back. But the plethora of conversations about life beyond COVID-19 should leave us in no doubt about the importance of delivering on that promise.
They also underline the appetite for genuine participation in decision making. That must include, as Fiona Duncan, Corra Foundation CEO, and Dr Sally Witcher, Inclusion Scotland CEO, have reminded us powerfully, our most marginalised citizens – including those for whom the ‘old normal’ didn’t work.
As Jim McCormick, incoming CEO of the Robertson Trust pointed out recently, “over the last decade – from the Christie Commission to Hilary Cottam’s Radical Help – we have learned how it is possible to achieve much better outcomes with lower cost, heartache and complexity if we are serious about designing support around people’s lives.”
But despite the Community Empowerment Act which came in Christie’s wake, we have yet to see the Commission’s much vaunted ambitions fully realised.
The relationship between state and civil society is too often transactional and merely consultative, social action’s potential to drive change not fully harnessed. Community Planning Partnerships, despite best intentions, are just not cutting it.
We need a more radical shift in decision making including the widespread use of deliberative tools like citizens’ juries and participatory budgeting. These must be more than merely advisory.
Elected representatives have to do more than exercise power in the full glare of robust scrutiny. They need to give it away. Sometimes, government needs to be the stakeholder.
There are, says Professor James Mitchell, “a multitude of options for governing Scotland” which need to be “accommodated respectfully in the debate on Scotland’s future”.
Mitchell argues we must move beyond constitutional preference as the starting point in deliberation or an end in itself, to focus on the kind of society and economy we really want.
Anne Applebaum’s latest book, Twilight of Democracy, serves as a warning for anyone who takes liberal democracy for granted.
It’s too easy to think the threats Applebaum writes about don’t apply here. But liberal democracies have, she reminds us, “always demanded things from citizens: participation, argument, effort, struggle.”
The latest Scottish Social Attitudes Survey results show high levels of trust in the Scottish Government and an overwhelming belief in the importance of voting. But the health of our democracy requires nurturing.