Placing power in the hands of the people

3 11 2014

Well, at least I won’t need to use my passport when we come up at Christmas.

That was pretty much the only mention of the independence referendum on my recent visit to my parents’ home in Cheshire. There was nothing in the newspapers or the the tv. Taken together with the poor turnout for the debate held in the House of Commons on 14th October it is clear that, as far as people and politicians south of the border are concerned, the matter is now closed.

Compare and contrast with the 14,000 individual submissions, including my own, made to the Smith Commission. Setting aside any concerns about the timescale on which the commission is acting, to produce Heads of Agreement with recommendations for further devolution of powers to the Scottish Parliament by 30 November 2014, what is clear is that, in Scotland, the issue of independence hasn’t gone away.

But for me independence, or lack of it, is only part of the solution. Independence would have been a valuable first step in bringing decisions closer to the people affected by those decisions but just as important as where government is, is how it works.

Firstly considering where government is; when government is too far away from the people being governed it is much more likely to fall under the influence of vested interests. Decisions are made which serve the interests of those groups rather than for the electorate. You need only look at the rise and rise of companies who exist solely to lobby politicians on behalf of the companies that they represent to see that this is true.

Now considering what government does; independence would have made no difference to the lives of the people of Scotland if the decisions made in Holyrood were the same as those taken in London. Listening to voters in Orkney and Shetland, who voted overwhelmingly to stay within the union, Edinburgh is a faraway place that cares little for their interests, just the same as London.

Government in the UK as a whole, and Scotland in particular, is massively centralised, both in terms of parliaments and massive local authorities; for example highland council covers an area the size of Belgium! Further comparison shows that Scotland has 32 local councils while Finland, with a population similar to Scotland, has 348 local authorities. The small island of Iceland has some 79 local municipalities. The average population of a local authority in Europe is 5,620. While in Scotland it is 163,000. Scotland wasn’t always so centralised, the current structure is a legacy of the Local Government (Scotland) Act of 1994, until then there were nine regional councils, 53 District Councils and three Island Councils, and it doesn’t need to be like this.

The contraction of the number of authorities has been accompanied by the loss of powers and budgets and a decrease in local democracy. Decentralisation, such as has happened at all, has been a cloak behind which privatisation stalks – the provision of erstwhile public services by private suppliers. I have seen organisations lauded as successful social enterprises when, for example, they provide local care services under tender from NHS Scotland, replacing services that previously the NHS had supplied directly – and in the process patients are re-framed as customers.

The only way to ensure government for the people by the people is to bring decision-making to everyone’s doorstep.

We must all have the chance to be involved in local decision-making and to feel that our voices will be heard; to feel that decisions affecting us can be made locally by us, rather than being handed down by remote local authorities or central government. We must create a new layer of local democracy at the community level.

But creating a new structure would count for little unless accompanied by real budgets and real powers at a strategic level. For example, communities could fund and control their local transport and planning decisions, and take control of local economic strategies.

Community councils do exist in many places, there is one here in Crieff, but other than in a few cases where income from wind farms and other local energy projects has been forthcoming, they have little money and little power to act. Yet there is a growing desire for local ownership and control of assets such as community woodlands, shops and other assets and amenities under threat. But this piecemeal creation of small development trusts and local community benefit societies, while desirable and commendable, is not a solution in and of itself. While devolution cannot stop at Holyrood neither can community control be restricted to individual, disparate projects.

We, the people need to be trusted. Currently, when government wants advice on policy it employs consultants, at great expense, who typically call for submissions from groups and organisations but seldom from individuals. The Smith Commission is a notable exception to this rule, though how many of the 14,000 submissions from individuals will be read is another matter. A case crossed my desk only this morning, a review into the role of women in the Scottish economy has been underway since July and a group I co-founded, Changing the Chemistry, has been approached to be a primary input to the review. Consultation amongst interested groups, even those with noble aims like Changing the Chemistry, favours vested interest groups. Far better to set up a small group of woman who reflect the whole of society and which can make a recommendations that reflects the views of all of society. Better still, allow woman in communities to decide how best they can participate in the Scottish economy by empowering local initiatives to stimulate economic growth; after all, things that would work in Crieff may not be right in Morningside.

At the core of local democracy is having local assets in local control. Land reform is a priority. At present Scotland’s land is owned by a small, privileged elite. The large estates are run for the sole benefit of landowners and not for Scotland’s benefit. The needs of the great shooting estates have been allowed to override all else, leading to massive deforestation and the huge increase in deer numbers. Our uplands should not be treeless and bare. Land ownership must be democratised, with unproductive land used to create a sustainable economy in terms of food, energy and leisure.

There is a new engagement with politics. Nicola Sturgeon, on behalf of the SNP, is talking to packed town halls. All three pro-independence parties saw membership rocket following the referendum.

There is a fervent desire for change. In Scotland, the YES movement remains vibrant and active. All the groups which campaigned for a yes vote now united around one thought; that things don’t have to be like this, that there can be a better Scotland.

There is a thirst for knowledge. Many people who have never been engaged in civic society, who, I’ve heard many state, have been sleep-walking through their lives, who have not engaged with the political process on the assumption that their vote doesn’t matter, have woken up. People want to know about land-ownership, want to understand macro-economics, want to know how the institutions of state are managed. And we don’t want to be talked at. We want to talk to each other and decide how best to make decisions as individuals and as communities and as a country.

As I’ve stated ad nauseum in these blogs, the day of the hero entrepreneur is dead. Now time is running out on the hero politician. People are no longer satisfied with Alan B’Stard and his ilk sitting in whichever parliament we’ve sent them to, voting on behalf of vested interests rather than constituents. We must return power to people, to communities. We must no longer accept a nation run on the basis of privilege.