It has been 25 years since the devolution legislation was presented to the Westminster parliament. Next Wednesday, 23 November, the UK Supreme Court is due to announce its decision on the Independence referendum case brought by the Scottish government.
The ruling is bound to excite a strong reaction from all sides of the debate. So, before we are all consumed – again – by the perpetual stalemate between ‘Yes’ and ‘No’, it was truly refreshing to hear a more nuanced voice aiming to broaden the debate beyond the issue of our country’s constitutional status.
Professor James Mitchell of the University of Edinburgh gave the inaugural State of Scottish Democracy lecture at Govan’s Pearce Institute. Professor Mitchell is a leading expert on the constitution and Holyrood, and he used the opportunity provided by the Electoral Reform Society to give his assessment of the health of democracy in Scotland today.
A font of quotes
Mitchell’s font of quotes started with these:
“Power is the ability for you and your community to stop bad things happening to you and your community, and to help good things to happen.”
“So much advice comes from those who would profit from it.”
He then considered whether democracy is in crisis, and if all is well with Scottish democracy, and argued for a more nuanced debate, after he noted great advances, while also identifying where progress has been limited, and indeed where Scotland’s democracy has gone backwards.
First, Mitchell considered the global rise in anti-democracy, such as Trump, Erdogan, and Modi, a rise that often leads the commentariat to claim that perhaps the electorate cannot be trusted. In Scotland specifically, he noted that the adversarial nature of our politics often leads both sides to accuse the other of being anti-democratic.
Mitchell was keen to emphasise that crises mean opportunities – or at least can provide the political system with stark choices.
He led the audience through the events of more than 25 years – from the Thatcher & Major period where Conservative vote share in Scotland dropped to 17·5%, and there was a complete electoral wipe-out, with Scottish Question Time restricted to once a month at Westminster, and very little accountability for the £7bn of Quango spending in Scotland (£13.5bn in today’s money).
“Not an end: a means to greater ends.”
He drew the audience’s attention to the high quality of the debates held during the Scottish Constitutional Convention, and to Donald Dewar’s advice, that the Scottish Parliament was “Not an end: a means to greater ends.”
He voiced his worry about the “underlying infrastructure of democracy”, especially the party system, the rules concerning campaign finance that shape it and the way this can facilitate a succession of the wealthiest, quoting Stein Rokkan: “Votes count, but resources decide the outcome in the end.”
Most of all, he hoped that local and central government could be made to work better together, and that power at Holyrood can be made to flow to the Parliament and not the Government. One specific wish is that Parliament’s resources to oversee and scrutinise would increase as the devolved powers increase, allowing scrutiny to keep pace with events.
Most of all, he wished that political opponents would find a way to return to disagree without being disagreeable.
He finished by saying that we need constant vigilant audits of our democracy, and periodic broader overviews. And we need to keep these issues – almost the meta of democracy – alive.
There was a wide-ranging audience discussion at the end, covering the subjects from community councils to the lack of debates at political party conferences.
The Electoral Reform Society was set up in Victorian times, to lobby for elections to use the Single Transferable Vote system. Now, it is a campaigning organisation with 5,000 members, and looks at a wider spread of methods of helping people express their democratic voice, such as citizens’ assemblies.
This new annual lecture series, and their upcoming programme of events starting in the new year, the society’s Scottish branch look certain to keep these as live topics of debate.