How to Make a New Scottish Democracy

Gerry Hassan          

The Herald, June 18th 2014

The contemporary Scottish independence debate is about many things and influences: the aspiration of some to make a new Scottish state, or to remain in the shared sovereignties of the UK. But another crucial influence is the state of the UK: its economic and social inequities and concentrations of power and wealth, and the failure of the progressive dream at a British level despite thirty years of Labour Governments in office over the post-war era.

Underpinning all of the above concerns is the fact that the UK is not and never has been a fully-fledged political democracy. This is recognised when the UK is described accurately as a constitutional monarchy or as a parliamentary democracy. Such constitutional figures as far apart as Enoch Powell on the right and Tony Benn on the left understood this. So too do parts of Britain’s political elite, but they shy away from conceding this or talking about it in public.

The reality is that the UK is increasingly influenced by the repackaging and representing of its past by its elites, and the appropriation of the voices of past generations like some once splendid country house fallen on hard times and telling tales of yesteryear.

Scotland on the other hand – likes to imagine and see itself differently – as democratic, disputatious, argumentative, less hierarchical and deferential. Yet, Scotland now is not and never has been a democracy. For most of its history it has been shaped by powerful institutions, its own establishment and elite opinion.

In both cases – Scotland and the UK – we are only talking about the narrow confines of political democracy, not economic and social concerns. These latter issues which have existed in previous political ages could not currently be more removed from the mainstream of British and Scottish considerations, but they cannot forever be omitted and kept to the margins.

Scottish society professes to be democratic and where political authority is meant to have its source in the popular will, but this is within a constricted, tightly defined and regulated public space. This is then further restricted by the limited nature of what passes for British democracy historically, and which is growing ever weaker due to increased centralisation and the rise of the mass surveillance database state. It is not an accident that ‘The Economist’s’  ‘Democracy Index’ has seen the UK decline in its ratings for each of the first five years of the index.

Scotland is not that different from this at the moment. Our democratic areas of consent and legitimacy are small indeed – centring on the Scottish Parliament and the election of Scottish MPs to the House of Commons – leaving aside whether the weathered institutions of local government are in any way worthy of that name given the constraints on them.

For all this a sizeable, powerful section of Scottish society aspires to live in a democracy – one that is a fully functioning political democracy. One which even begins to explore issues of economic and social democratisation as well. It could of course be argued that such sentiment – particularly the first feeling – could be identified all over the UK – and find voice in England in some future form in relation to two unions: the post-devolution UK and Europe. But for the moment there is little sign of this, whereas in Scotland there is the potential of change now and in the foreseeable future.

To begin to explore and offer some tangible policy recommendations in line with the arguments contained in my recently published book, ‘Caledonian Dreaming: The Quest for a Different Scotland’, I sketch out from the analysis of my book, a programme for the making of a democratic Scotland below. This may be in places imperfect and not the final word, but it is a realistic, idealistic and deliverable set of policies which would if implemented change Scotland in a fundamental manners, and begins to oversee a dramatic shift in power and voice.

Planning this menu of policies I elicited comments and suggestions from 60 people across Scottish society. These came from all walks of life – from academics and journalists, to business people, trade unionists, think tanks, NGOs, campaigners and activists. The sample while in no way representative of the wider nation, was drawn up with sensitivities on age, class, gender, ethnicity and place, but most of all people had something to say. I restricted each person to two suggestions (all of which are anonymous) on the question of how do we make Scotland a democracy – a land more egalitarian, inclusive and run by and for the vast majority of the people.

Some observers will note that the definition of a democracy – covers the political, economic and social – and also that the list does not take an explicit stance on whether Scotland should or should not be an independent nation. This latter position is a deliberate one. Shifting Scotland to becoming more of a democracy and collectively discussing what kind of society we wish to be should be what leads and informs the independence debate. Discussing and agreeing this first is the best way to make constitutional change alive and relevant to the public, rather than as an arid and specialist subject.

Some may see this as entailing the act of Scotland writing itself a modern constitution, and the processes by which this comes about. Of course it does. However this may make it sound like a legal confinement not the inspiring aspiration that establishes what constitutions mean. This is both fundamental and far-reaching. We cannot create and then inhabit a constitution without the more important democratic spaces and cultures coming into being at the same time. What we are talking about is voice in its deepest sense: becoming a people and a polity.

This is to put it simply an outline for a comprehensive programme for shifting Scotland from a debate and focus on self-government to one based on self-determination. There is a fundamental difference between the two: the first has become focused on institutions, a confined version of politics, and politicians as the main agents of change. The second is about a much more fluid notion of change and wider idea of politics, less focused and owned by institutions. The latter can inform and make more relevant the former; so that this is not an either/or.

Implicit in the best of the current debate is the desire for a ‘different Scotland’, the subtitle of my book, and those words have several meanings and nuance, some of which are often overlooked. One is a rejection of the orthodoxies and directions of Westminster politics these last few decades and up to today. Another is a desire to shift Scotland geo-politically, and seek out new international alliances and terms of reference which don’t always have to be dominated by the Anglo-American world and its tarnished version of capitalism.

However, yet another one is less acknowledged and that is the belief that the current state of Scotland does not live up to the hopes and desires of many of its citizens, or treat them with the respect and humanity they deserve. ‘Different’ in this context means not quietly accepting the status quo and continuity Scotland on offer from the mainstream pro-union parties and SNP version of independence.

The independence debate is about at its best the kind of Scotland and society people want to live in. Aiding this requires that we honestly understand and act upon the shortcomings of what has passed for democracy and public life, and address these.

For too long, Scots radicals, progressives and campaigners, of a left, nationalist and civic Scotland persuasion, have been comfortable buying into the limited, controlled state of undemocracy with its institutional gatekeepers and supposedly enlightened authority. Scotland’s political parties and in particular those of the centre-left, Labour, SNP, and once upon a time, the Lib Dems, were all prepared to go along with this deception.

It won’t wash anymore because Scotland is changing: the independence referendum is a product of that transformation, and itself acting as a catalyst to further change politics, society and public culture.

Scotland is slowly and hesitantly becoming a modern country and democracy!

A Menu of Fifty Policy Actions ….

1. Every Scottish citizen should have opportunity to contribute to and help shape a new Scottish constitution. This should not be done by the time old gathering of the great and the good invoking the people in a Constitutional Convention, but instead directly involve the people and learn from the new constitutionalism breaking out around the world.

2. Change the Scottish Parliament electoral system from the Additional Member System (AMS) with its closed lists to either the Single Transferable Vote (STV) or open lists.

3. Encourage all political parties to have open primaries for their parliamentary candidates.

4. A right of recall of MSPs/MPs subject to petition signed by 10% of the local electorate.

5. Establish a Second Chamber elected by STV or open list.

6. Draw up a legal framework protecting local self-government – a constitution of local democracy. This would formally protect not just the autonomy and status of local government – something Westminster has never done – but a commitment to real subsidiarity across a range of political, economic and social areas.

7. Establish structures of substantive local government – with significant powers and autonomy – and a clear, direct link between local taxation and local spending.

8. Increase the number of local councils from the current 32 based on 163,200 people per local council to closer to the European Union average of 5,630 people depending on demand and interest.

9. Limit the numbers of terms that local councilors are allowed to serve on local councils to a maximum of two terms.

10. Immediate abolition of council tax freeze.

11. To eliminate land speculation and stabilise land markets, introduce land value taxation as a replacement for council tax, business rates and land and buildings transaction tax.

12. Community ownership of energy development and companies.

13. Secure Scotland’s renewable energy dividend with it made a condition of planning consent that a percentage of each project’s equity be put aside for local ownership or into a National Renewables Fund for the common good.

14. A network of local tax and welfare advice centres established based in the main local authority buildings.

15. A citizen’s income is created which is an unconditional, non-withdrawable income payable to each individual as a right of citizenship.

16. Adopt a policy of reducing the gap between the highest and lowest paid. This should include within it a ratio between the highest and lowest paid as proposed in the recent Swiss referendum.

17. All enterprises whether public, private or voluntary, employing more than one hundred people should once a year have to publicly report the average rewards including bonuses, stock options and any other related income. This would be cost neutral as those organisations which were more ethical and socially concerned would attract more business and custom.

18. A new honours system aimed at celebrating our highest paid taxpayers. Those who pay the most tax (in percent) in every community would be celebrated in a local new year’s honours list. Basic information on the amount of tax that everyone pays would be available as a matter of public record as in Norway.

19. Replace GDP as the major indicator of national progress with a measurement such as Oxfam Scotland’s Humankind Index. This will include economic, social, sustainable, equitable and democratic indices.

20. Employers and communities have a statutory right to convert an enterprise into an employee or community owned one whenever there is a takeover bid or proposed closure. A limited version of this has existed in Italy since 1985 called the Marcora law.

21. Change the UK Treasury rule that forbids Danish style employee pensions which are run with very low fees and fair pay outs. Currently Scots are shortchanged to the tune of £3 billion per annum in existing employment pensions.

22. Limit the number of boards which directors can sit upon at any one time to two.

23. Term limits for all public appointments to public boards to two successive terms.

24. A central bank under democratic control.

25. A legal right for children (whether minors or adults) to inherit land and property.

26. Accountability of the Crown Estate in Scotland to the Scottish Parliament along with the administration and revenues of the Crown’s property rights to Scotland’s territorial seabed and adjoining continental shelf area.

27. Introduce an initial gender quota of 30% on all public bodies rising to 50% within ten years.

28. Apply equality laws to religious organisations including faith schools.

29. Invest in health visitors. Currently the vast majority of health visitors stop visiting babies when they have reached six weeks. Only recently has a second stage been added at 30 months – for a range of tests for all children. In Holland and Germany the number of visits over this 30 month period would be ten. Yet Scotland is cutting rather than increasing the number of health visitors.

30. Prevent GPs working for NHS as autonomous private businesses which is currently commonplace and detrimental to national health priorities and hugely expensive.

31. Scotland’s schools should become learning centres able to encourage talent in any field and facilitate individual learning. They should be able to offer education to anyone irrespective of their age, ability or background.

32. Family studies and healthy relationships should be taught to all children. Future generations of Scotland need to know how to value themselves and others and to have confident life and social skills to aid them in forming and maintaining better relationships.

33. Every child aged from twelve months until they start school is entitled to free, high quality nursery care three days a week. This will assist in child development and allow parents, especially mothers, to work, so contributing to the economy and society.

34. Every child when they start primary school is automatically enrolled in their local library.

35. A Young Scots volunteers (YSV) programme. Every young person between the ages of 17 and 21 years has to compete a placement of at least six months, volunteering at home or preferably abroad. The scheme would award places competitively not based on academic achievement, but on a young person’s perceived needs and commitment.

36. Abolish illiteracy. Too many Scottish children leave school unable to read which blights their entire lives. This can be done and does not involve huge sums of money or paying teachers large amounts more, and will more than pay for any additional resources from the contribution to society of those who have been aided.

37. Self-directed support for those who need social care is now a right. The principle should be extended to community nursing, employability support services, post-school services, ex-offender services and anywhere else in public life where people can exercise real control over the services they use.

38. Abolish the charitable status of private schools.

39. Establish deliberate democratic processes in every local area alongside official local government structures.

40. A prohibition on government established expert groups filled solely with professionals. All official groups and reviews to have a statutory duty to have direct representation from the groups affected. Government to have a legal duty to reply to any recommendations from such groups within one year of a report publication.

41. All government legislation and policies to have a built-in obsolescence clause. This will state that when the law or policy achieves its result that the relevant professional group (s) to which the legislation pertains is reviewed, are not automatically continued and in places abolished. Legislation should recognise that professions have lifespans. There should be time called on the continual cycle of the professional classes.

42. A Scottish Broadcasting Corporation should be set up.

43. A Scottish public sector procurement strategy should be developed given this is big business currently worth £11 billion a year and one which by bundling projects means that few Scottish firms are big enough to apply. A longer-term approach is required with a focus on growing Scots companies, research and development, and employment opportunities.

44. A national ‘Get the Vote Out’ programme should be rolled out for elections and referenda which is led by a non-politically aligned body. Its aim should be to assist in civic and political citizenship to encourage people to vote and take part in public life. This could draw on examples of political and civic engagement such as the Vincentian Partnership for Social Justice in Ireland which have had marked success in driving up turnout at elections.

45. Priority should be given to improving the take up on the electoral register via a national electoral registration drive. Registration rates have been in long-term decline for four decades, with on some estimates less than 90% of eligible voters on the register, and this is significantly lower among younger and poorer voters.

46. Make the internet a basic utility and universally provided. There should be a universal service obligation on companies to provide a free basic service with people able to upgrade to faster and better speeds if they so wish.

47. A community garden in every primary school. Urban wasteland should be cultivated. Where no land is available, householders could donate their gardens for a reduction in council tax.

48. Allow taxpayers to devote proportions of a set amount between £50-100 per annum to non-profit digitally based news content and research organisations.

49. The national arts and cultural organisation to not see the arts as an extension of economic policy but as a good in themselves. The arts should not be seen as a branch of government policy but should have artists and practitioners at their heart.

50. An Oil Fund for the Mind to be established which gives 1% of the Oil Fund and divided between social justice at home and conflict resolution abroad. This would follow the example of the Norwegian Oil Fund which has earmarked a small percentage for international conflict resolution and played a constructive role in the Tamil Tiger-Sri Lanka civil war.

Finally, and most importantly, Scotland should become a modern country and democracy.