How do we have a Genuine People’s Democracy?
Sunday Mail, January 25th 2015
It was UK Democracy Day last week – 800 years since Magna Carta. And on the same day of the announcement that the Chilcot inquiry on the Iraq war would not be published until after the May general election – hardly an advert for British democracy.
Then it was the debate about the on-off TV election debates. Was Cameron or Miliband more chicken? Will the SNP, Plaid Cymru and the Greens finally get their place on the UK platform?
There was also the publication of draft legislation deriving from the recent Smith Commission, identifying more promised devolved powers to Scotland: income tax, some welfare powers, and, not insubstantial, areas such as the Crown Estate.
The usual party politicking broke out. David Cameron said this would result in one of the most powerful devolved institutions in the world. Margaret Curran spoke of a ‘Powerhouse Parliament’. Pro-union politicians claimed that the ‘Vow’ had been delivered.
Nicola Sturgeon, other Nationalists and Green MSP Patrick Harvie claimed that it watered down Smith, the First Minister talking of a Westminster ‘veto on welfare changes’. Others cited the lack of any popular involvement in the whole exercise.
The Scottish Secretary of State Alistair Carmichael declared that these proposals would lead to Scotland having ‘the third most powerful devolved institution in the world’. Not exactly catchy or memorable! Aiming for third place in international devolution!
There is a pattern to this which both sides concede. The Scottish Constitutional Convention led to the Scotland Act 1998 which set up the Parliament. The Calman Commission produced the Scotland Act 2012 which has yet to be fully implemented. And now we have Smith which will see another Scotland Act on the statute books by 2016 which could be different from the current proposals depending on the result of the UK election.
These initiatives are coming along more and more frequently. They are also getting shorter in duration: six years for the Convention, one and half years for Calman, and now 39 days for Smith. Is this really the way to wire together a new constitutional settlement, and if it is, why stop at 39 days?
There has been retreat in public engagement. The Smith Commission did not have the time, Calman didn’t seriously try, and the Constitutional Convention went through the pretence of invoking the popular will of the people, but didn’t bother to find out what it might be. On the plus side, this reaffirmation that elites know best could be seen as refreshing honesty.
It doesn’t have to be like this. There was the democratic explosion of our referendum. Beyond Scotland, Ireland recently managed to undertake a Constitutional Convention that involved citizens at its heart. Iceland, Australia and large parts of Latin America have all experimented with popular constitutionalism – with lessons for us.
There are examples closer to home. The London School of Economics have just set up a crowdsourced constitutional convention, from the ground up, looking at the kind of society people want to live in. And it has come up with some interesting preliminary results.
What people most value are the fundamentals of life: how a society nurtures literacy, numeracy and life skills in young people, and values a very different kind of security to the one our current politicians obsess on – instead going back to the founding principles of the welfare state. They aren’t interested in dry constitutionalism, but in a politics and set of rules that addresses the economic and social concerns that people face.
Such insights offer a clue for the direction, post-Smith, of Scottish politics. None of this is about endless constitutional fine-tuning. It isn’t even about whether SNP Westminster MPs vote on English matters, or the merits or not of English Votes for English laws. Those are distractions at best to most people.
Scotland has to be about more than ‘the third most powerful devolved institution in the world’. Scotland should be about finding the right balance between prosperity, security and embracing change. This is about trying to heal our fractured society – which is letting down young people and those who live in our most disadvantaged communities.
Tough times lie ahead irrespective of the UK election result. One of the main questions running into and beyond the election is: who do Scots most trust to oppose austerity, to offer as much protection as is possible, and at the same time map out a very different course to that offered by Westminster.
That’s a lot to ask when British politics are in crisis, and Labour and SNP are bitterly fighting it out in Scotland. But it really isn’t all about the constitution per se. It is about the kind of society and how we can best get there. And that’s what any constitutional politics which is relevant beyond the politicians has to put at its heart.