Independence and Democracy

4 Aug

Thanks for the Support

In my last post I came out in favour of independence (see here) and received a truly overwhelming number of messages from people who had taken the time to read my thoughts. Thank you all very much.

Rather surprisingly, my post led to a number of people contacting me to ask a variety of questions. From the No side in particular, many told me that they could sympathise with my views but remained unconvinced that in an independent Scotland would thrive as an independent state. “But how would it work?” and “how would we afford it?” were without doubt the most common of all the questions that I received last month.

Although I did try to answer some of these queries at the time, I decided that it would be far better (time permitting) to develop my ideas on the future of an independent Scotland via a series of blog posts.

So here we go.

The first of my new posts can be found below and is aimed at the “how would it work” line of questioning. It concerns the dire state of democratic representation and participation in Scotland. It is therefore firmly aimed at those who believe this debate should be conducted beyond the confines of a spreadsheet.

For those seeking in depth economic analysis and reassurances about finances, I am sorry to disappoint you this time round – perhaps this post isn’t for you.
That being said, for those of you who are looking for an economic analysis of the status quo in Britain today, please take the time to watch the first 5 minutes of this video. (Click Here)

If you would like to listen to some of the ideas circulating throughout the Yes campaign on how Scotland’s economy could flourish after independence, please watch the video to the end. It is 19 minutes in total. I would recommend anyone who finds themselves saying “I can’t vote Yes because I don’t know enough about it” to watch it and many others like it from the Common Weal Project. I intend to use future blog posts to build upon some of their ideas.

Independence and Democracy

Throughout the referendum campaign it has become clear that there is only one side making a compelling argument from the perspective of democracy. In fact, I would go as far as to suggest that those in favour of Scotland remaining within the United Kingdom have all but conceded the democratic argument to those in favour of independence.

I have never heard it being seriously argued that a vote for independence would render Scotland a less democratic country.

On the contrary, all of the most compelling arguments flow in the other direction and would include: the guarantee that Scotland will always get the government it votes for; the assurance that decisions impacting upon the lives of Scottish citizens will be taken by a parliament directly elected by the Scottish people; an electoral system based on a type of proportional representation; a chance for smaller parties – and even for parties not yet in existence – to flourish and contribute to the national discourse; the opportunity to draft a constitution fitting for the 21st century and the abolition of the absurd practice of allowing an unelected House of Lords that consists of hereditary peers, religious clerics and various other obscure characters to influence government legislation. (On that last point consider this: there are only 2 nation states on earth that have unelected religious clerics sitting in their legislature – Britain… and Iran.)

As a bare minimum, democracy must contain an element of dignity. The right to not only elect candidates who you believe will best represent you and your fellow citizens; but also the right to hold those representatives to account through participating in the robust political life of the community should be a profoundly empowering experience.

In Scotland, though, we are so far behind other European nation states when it comes to democratic representation and active participation that it is quite frankly embarrassing.

I have drawn upon these statistics in a previous post. I make no apologies for doing so again here.

Scotland currently has 32 local councils. The UK as a whole has 406.

This means that at a sub – national government level both Scotland and the UK are lagging far behind continental Europe when it comes to democratic representation.

1.) Number of sub-national governments

– Austria: 2,357
– Denmark: 98
– Finland: 336
– France: 36,697
– Germany: 11,553
– Italy: 8,094
– Spain: 8,116
– UK: 406
– Scotland: 32

With such a small number of local councils comes the obvious problem of population size per local authority. Once again we are miles behind what one might consider to be the norm when taking a look at other European countries. The sheer size of local authorities in Scotland and the UK as a whole render local decision making all but impossible.

The average population size per UK council is 152, 680. In Scotland, its 163,200

2.) Average population size per council

– Austria : 3,560
– Denmark: 56, 590
– Finland: 15, 960
– France: 1,770
– Germany: 7,080
– Italy: 7,470
– Spain: 5, 680
– UK: 152, 680
– Scotland: 163,200

It should therefore come as no surprise to discover that turn out at local elections in the UK – and in Scotland in particular where we have a local council that is geographically larger than Belgium! – is so low.

3.) Turnout at local elections

– Austria: 73%
– Denmark: 69%
– Finland: 61%
– France: 64%
– Germany: 60%
– Italy: 75%
– Spain: 73%
– UK : 36%
– Scotland: 32%

The fundamental problem therefore is that decisions which influence everyday life in our local communities are taken far too far away from the people they are intended to apply to.

As Lesley Riddoch points out in her excellent book Blossom – What Scotland Needs To Flourish : “In Norway, Finland, Denmark, France, Germany, Holland and Belgium, towns like St. Andrews, Saltcoats, Kirkcaldy, Fort William, Kelso, Pitlochry or Methil and islands like Barra, North Uist, Westray and Uist have their own councils.”

But not in Scotland, the least locally empowered country in the developed world. Take Baden-Württemberg in southern Germany, for example. It has twice the population of Scotland and a total of nearly 24,000 elected representatives. Scotland as a whole has a grand total of 1,416.

According to the latest Scottish Household Survey, only 22% of Scots think that they can have any impact on the way their local area functions.

With such low levels of confidence in the capacity for citizens to actively contribute to their local communities, then, is it any wonder that turnouts are so low at election time?

One of the major – but by no means the only – problems here is a piece of Westminster legislation that was passed during John Major’s time as Prime Minister. The Local Government etc. (Scotland) Act 1994 created the current local government structure of 32 unitary authorities covering the whole of Scotland.

As a result, it is only by virtue of different Westminster legislation or independence that any substantial change could be achieved. (Unless of course you are quite content with the status quo in which people voting to put a plaque up on a wall in Biggar have to send their council representative 40 miles down the road to South Lanarkshire Council to ask for permission.)

Remember: it isn’t normal to be this rubbish.

In addition to the absurd size of Councils in Scotland and the UK, another considerable problem here is that of money. Once again, by any measure of comparison, the UK and Scotland are far, far behind the norm when it comes to the revenue raising and spending powers of local authorities.

In the UK, local authorities raise 25% of their budget. In France the figure is 50% and in Switzerland it is 85%, with the wholly unsurprising consequence that turnout at local elections are much higher in those countries.

Moving beyond this then – because we cannot hope to be only average can we? – in Norway they have a similar population to Scotland but have 431 municipalities compared to Scotland’s 32. These municipalities directly run primary and secondary education, outpatient health, senior citizen and social services, unemployment, planning, economic development and the roads.

Remember: it doesn’t have to be like this.

You don’t even have to look at the Norwegian model. In Porto Allegre in Brazil, for example, there has been a hugely successful programme of participatory budgeting. Since the late 1980s, spending decisions in the city have been made by neighbourhood assemblies. Thousands of citizens from across the social spectrum with vast differences in income, lifestyle and family background take part in 24 annual assemblies where residents debate and vote for funding priorities. They also elect representatives who meet weekly to carry out the wishes of the community. They can decide, amongst many other things, whether to prioritise spending on fixing roads, building bridges or setting up a new day care centre for children.

Citizens are thus empowered at the local level to take decisions that directly impact their everyday lives and administer their democratically allocated resources at a local level. The result, as James Foley and Pete Ramand point out in their thought provoking book Yes: The Radical Case for Scottish Independence, has been drastic increases in popular participation, reduced corruption and inequality, and political education for the lowest socio-economic communities. Similar experiments are now underway around the globe in places like Venezuela, Ecuador and India.

Sweden offers another striking example here. In Sweden only those earning over roughly £30,000 per year pay any taxes to central government. Instead, income tax is largely paid to local authorities a fraction the size of those in Scotland who run virtually all of the services within that area that are used by citizens. Only corporation tax and higher rates of income tax are paid to central government. There is therefore a clear link between tax paid by local citizens and the decisions taken by local citizens about which services that tax revenue should be spent on. The result is far higher levels of citizen engagement and participation at the local level.

As these examples have demonstrated, there are so many different ways in which Scotland could transform itself into a far more democratic system. Look at almost any other country in the developed world and you will see far greater levels of engagement in both local and national level politics. But in the UK everyone seems to just accept such abysmally low levels of representation and participation as something that is normal or, far more depressing in my view, unalterable.

The question before the Scottish people then is a simple one: do you want to live in a country where decisions that have a direct impact upon local communities are taken by people living and working in those communities?

If you do, then evidently the first step is to ensure that there is a Scottish Parliament in place with full powers to devolve decision making down to the local level. Otherwise, we are stuck in a Westminster system with absolutely no appetite for decentralised decision making and which consists of only 59 Scottish MPs out of a total of 650.

Of course change will take time, and many problems will be encountered along the way, but surely this is a small price to pay when compared to the absurd status quo of not even trying.

And this goes to a fundamental point in the referendum debate as a whole: In my view, it simply isn’t enough to say that you would vote for independence if there was a comprehensive blueprint for the radical transformation of local democracy in Scotland on offer from an existing political party (realistically the SNP) but since that isn’t on offer right away you will be voting No.

We shouldn’t be looking to the future based on the constrictive and highly undesirable democratic apparatus of the past. Look at those figures again – by any measure the situation in both Scotland and Britain today is fundamentally flawed and there is virtually no prospect of changing things via the Westminster route.

We live in one of the most centralised states in the entire world in which the political establishment are more than happy to have an obedient and largely disempowered population adhere to their “stand still while we try and fix you” style of governance.

We could be doing a lot, lot better.

Independence, for all its uncertainties, would definitely bring about a proliferation of new political parties, new interest groups and new lobbying initiatives as the people of Scotland set about the task of building and shaping their own nation state.

Furthermore, based on all that I have seen, read, heard, debated and discussed with many different sections of the grassroots Yes campaign I am in no doubt that there would be a groundswell of opinion in favour of major democratic reform moving forward after a Yes vote. Ideas about enhancing local and national democracy are widespread and gaining considerable levels of support throughout the country as town halls continue to be packed out every evening of the week.

And this is a crucial point: across the length and breadth of Scotland people have already demonstrated their appetite for local democracy. Every night town halls and community centres are filled to capacity with local citizens coming to listen and discuss the future of their country. This is an achievement of the very highest order and, in my view at least, absolutely refutes the assertion made by Johann Lamont, the leader of the Scottish Labour Party, that Scottish people are “not genetically programmed to make political decisions.”

The return of the town hall meeting has shown that the people of Scotland are ready to participate in the political life of their communities. Just imagine what could be achieved if they were only to acquire the power to match that enthusiasm.

Rather than standing still while we wait on Westminster to fix us, we could, through a radically new democratic settlement, begin to think about fixing ourselves.

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5 Responses to “Independence and Democracy”

  1. David Bonas August 4, 2014 at 5:54 pm #

    Oh dear!! I managed to get a few paragraphs into your blog and had to stop!! I cannot recall reading such twaddle and, without actually wanting to question the comments you’ve received, I suspect that you’ve been bitten by the indy-virus of gross exaggeration! If permitted, I will comment in three parts. I have yet to hear of anybody who is planning to vote against separation that Scotland can’t afford to become independent. The clue is in the title – most people think we are Better Together. As I have said to you before, the only people who have ever mentioned Scotland NOT being able to make it on their own are the three Stooges (Salmond, Sturgeon and Swinney) and, now, you. You are guilty of scare-mongery, bluff and bluster – stop it!!! I was hoping that your blog would be better than that – I hold my hand up to admit I was wrong!! The second comment to follow shortly 🙂

  2. David Bonas August 4, 2014 at 6:06 pm #

    My second point addresses the issue of democracy and independence and does require to humour me for a while. I will try not to dwell on this too much but you will see that this is key to the discussion (you will need to loosely agree with this before I post part three of my comment – hence the request to humour me!!). Precise figures aren’t really important in this – just the basic principle. The current Scottish government was voted into power with approval of around 30% of the voting public or, in other words, 70% of those able to vote DID NOT vote for them. Is this democracy? I know the counter-argument so I will save you the effort and put it down here for you. The voting system in Scotland is basically designed so that no single party can gain overall power at Holyrood and it is truly remarkable that the SNP managed to get such a sizeable majority to return them to power as a single-governing party. A truly impressive feat for which the SNP are to applauded for their achievement. Is that about right?

  3. Man Who Came To Stay August 5, 2014 at 9:30 am #

    Ok thanks for your comments.

    “The current Scottish government was voted into power with approval of around 30% of the voting public or, in other words, 70% of those able to vote DID NOT vote for them. Is this democracy?”

    This is of course problematic. You find similar problems throughout many countries around the world including the UK system as a whole. See for example: http://abehnisch.com/cameron-political-legitimacy/

    But for the purposes of your reply on my Facebook page I am willing to accept the premise that there is a fundamental flaw in a great number of electoral systems when it comes to nationwide general elections.

    You still haven’t addressed any of the problems raised in my piece though, ranging from an unelected house of lords, the problems associated with existing Westminster legislation, over sized councils, very low turnouts, non existent local decision making, very low levels of revenue raising powers at local level, the experiments of participatory democracy in other countries and all the rest.

    In my view all of those things would enhance democracy in Scotland. Independence gives one a greater chance of acheiving those goals. In summary then, the whole piece, when taken together, forms an arugment and therefore is not, as you bizarrely claim, a non argument.

    • David Bonas August 5, 2014 at 2:28 pm #

      As I mentioned in my initial post, I only managed to read the first few paragraphs before switching off. In fact I got to the point ‘the guarantee that Scotland will always get the government it votes for’. This is an oft-spouted phrase from the Yes campaign and it is a phrase that I want to comment on in this post. I know that you won’t take my comments personally and will accept that they are pointed at other readers who (perhaps) are still to make up their mind.

      From the acceptance that my understanding is broadly correct, I can draw three assumptions; (a) that you’ve never actually voted (b) that there is a link missing in your understanding of the Scottish voting system or (c) a mix of (a) and (b). Let me explain.

      The % of votes (however you read them) means that the SNP were brought to power with 70% of those eligible to vote NOT wanting them. This is not the democracy that you’re seeking and no amount of pro-indy spin can ever in a million years say it is. However, it is the model of democracy which has been adopted in Scotland and, for that reason, it should be respected and accepted (both of which I do). So, with an acceptance of this model, there must be a reciprocal acceptance of the democratic model currently in place in the whole of the United Kingdom. It would be hypocritical beyond belief to slate the UK-wide model in favour of something that is also so clearly unrepresentative of the people!! We could say that Scotland didn’t vote for the Conservatives/Lib Dems in any massive number (though not insignificant) but then where do we draw the line? Do we give the Borders their independence because they didn’t vote SNP? Do we allow Orkney and Shetland (with their oil wealth) to separate from Scotland because of their allegiance to the Lib Dems? Of course not – that would be silly!!

      That aside, and as you’ve accepted, the voting model adopted by the Scottish Parliament since the start of devolution, is designed never to return a single party to government and, as I accept, what the SNP have managed to achieve is impressive but, at the same time, something that will rarely happen. So, when I go to vote, my list of candidates reads: P Smith – Conservative; B Jones – Labour; L Brown – Lib Dem; V Clark – SNP etc. The idea is that I place my vote wherever I choose (1 and 2). Nowhere on my ballot paper is there a space for me to vote for a coalition yet, by design, a coalition will invariably govern Scotland. The claim therefore that Scotland will be guaranteed the government that it votes for could not be further from the truth. Apart from the rare exception (as now), Scotland is always guaranteed to get a government that it DOES NOT vote for!!!

      A vote against separation could quite easily see the return of a Labour-led coalition in Holyrood and a Labour government for the rest of the UK. With the (hopeful) demise of the SNP we could see a Labour government in both places (though unlikely). We could even see a voting pattern return to that of the 1950s (I know it’s far, far, far too distant for it to matter) where the majority of Scottish voters (around 60%) helped to return a Conservative government to power!! The thing to remember is that politics is a very fickle business and, if the ruling party(ies) become unpopular then they can easily be replaced. Independence however is something that is irreversible – the consequences of which the Scottish population will have to live with forever!!! Whatever outcome appears following a NO vote the one thing that is almost a racing certainty is that SCOTLAND WILL NEVER GET THE GOVERNMENT IT VOTES FOR simply because ‘Coalition’ isn’t on the ballot paper. Separation could even spell the worst scenario imaginable – a coalition at Holyrood and a Conservative majority at Westminster (controlling the Scottish economy).

      The bottom line is that the promise of a government that the people of Scotland vote for is fundamentally wrong!! The SNP are guilty of blatant lies by suggesting it and you are guilty of scaremongery by pedaling it!! At some point I may be able to return to your blog and digest the rest. As always though, it’s good to see both sides rather than just one!!

      • Man Who Came To Stay August 7, 2014 at 9:22 am #

        Ok Dave thanks for that.

        First off I have voted before and I do understand both the Westminster and Holyrood electoral systems.

        Your point is essentially that because there is no “coalition” on the ballot paper this means that Scotland will never get the government it votes for.

        Presumably therefore you believe that Germany never gets the government it votes for (Merkel got just under 30% of total vote, similar to your SNP point), Belgium never gets the government it votes for, Poland never gets the government it votes for, Ireland never gets the government it votes for etc. etc. (In fact just by checking very quickly here on Wikipedia the list of coalition governments in Europe – (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_countries_with_coalition_governments) one can see that almost the entire continent doesnt get the government it votes for according to your definition since there is no “coalition” option on the ballot box.

        What this does not mean, however, is that any of these nation states are not democratic.

        On the contrary, from the perspective of input legitimacy I would argue that all systems that produce coalitions are in fact more democratic on accounts of a larger number of parties and politicians (and thus citizens voice via representative politics) having a direct input into government. Systems with single party governments tend to have overly powerful executive branches which render Parliament much weaker and thus give the citizenry less democratic power via those they elect to represent them.

        From your “no coalition on the ballot paper” argument you conclude that “The claim therefore that Scotland will be guaranteed the government that it votes for could not be further from the truth.”

        On point of the plain meaning of words you may well be correct. This would also mean that nearly all the countries in Europe never get the government it chooses.

        But the fundamental point about my piece is that it will render Scotland a more democratic country as a whole. It does not rest on the single premise that the word “government” must mean single party rule in order to be democratic. Indeed, as I have explained above I believe coalition governments to be more democratic.

        Moving beyond the narrow perameters of government then, you have had 3 lengthy replies to address one aspect of my argument.

        My overall argument was that when all things are considered independence offers a much greater prospect of enhancing democracy in Scotland. This was based on an analysis of the track record of the Westminster system, a direct comparison with other countries, citations of examples of schemes and initiatives from other countries and the belief that the Scottish people have demonstrated an appetite for change by being so active in the town and village halls,

        In response you have focused on “the government it votes for” and nothing else.

        I have yet to hear anything about the abolition of an unelected House of Lords, the troubles associated with oversized councils, the chroinic lack of revenue raising powers at local level, the woeful levels of participation in the life of the community when compared to other democratic societies, the Westminster legislation that enshrines the 32 unitary Council structure, the desirability or otherwise of schemes like participatory budgeting in Porto Allegre or the ways in which the Westminster model is seeking to address the fact that only 22% of Scots think they have any input into the way their local areas are run,

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