“The people had to escape for their lives, some of them losing all their clothes except what they had on their backs. The people were told they could go where they liked, provided they did not encumber the land that was by rights their own. The people were driven away like dogs who deserved no better”. – Betsy Mackay (quoted by John Prebble in “The Highland Clearances”)
Last week, I took part in the Scottish Government’s virtual public meeting on their Land Reform for a Net Zero Scotland Consultation. This was the only virtual meeting of the series, with the remainder being held in various rural locations across Scotland. About 120 people were in attendance to hear Andrew Thin from the Scottish Land Commission, Janet Mountford-Smith, one of the Scottish Government civil servants charged with coordinating this consultation and the Land Reform Bill as well as Government Ministers Màiri McAllan and Lorna Slater whose remits lie within this Bill. After presentations by all four, the audience was given the opportunity to ask questions. Unfortunately, they chose not to record this virtual meeting though we were assured that the Scottish Government took notes throughout.
Our hosts said repeatedly throughout the evening that the Scottish Government was “entirely open” to suggestions on how to enact Land Reform – and repeatedly encouraged folk to respond to the Consultation – it’s clear that they’re not working from an entirely blank slate here. Several proposals are being made and some of them, we clearly must object to.
The second in the series of the Scottish Government’s Independence White Papers has been published. Renewing Democracy through Independence presents the Government’s view on the state of democracy in the UK, the limits of Scottish voters’ democratic voices within the UK and how Scottish independence could improve the situation.
The paper outlines the various democratic deficits of the UK. From the unelected House of Lords, through the unproportional voting system of the UK General Elections, the lack of accountability that comes with majority governments in that UK, the fact that devolution is granted essentially at the pleasure of the UK Government and can be withdrawn or overridden at any time and, most importantly for a document promoting Scottish independence, the fact that despite pro-independence parties winning several elections in the years since the last independence referendum it essentially comes down to the whim of the UK Prime Minister to “allow” another one. The central claim is that the UK is insufficiently prepared to correct these democratic deficits from within and only an independent Scotland would free itself from them.
There’s little on the pages of this paper that is outright objectionable, indeed I and others at Common Weal have made some of the very same points in our work over the years, but this paper stands in a strange place without, apparently, a clear idea of its target audience. It’s too long and detailed to be read by anyone who doesn’t have an interest in politics but it’s simultaneously too shallow and, frankly, bland for anyone who does. As Chapter 2 of a unified Independence White Paper it would read as an introductory preamble to later chapters but as Paper 2 in a series of individual papers it doesn’t really stand alone in its own right. It certainly does little to say precisely what an independent Scotland would do to fill the gaps left in Scottish democratic structures after the undemocratic sections of UK governance are excised by independence. To that end, what follows is a brief attempt to fill that gap with what I would like to see every level of Scottish politics look like.
Look. I’m not in any way going to defend Boris Johnson. The disastrous policies – from his disorganised Brexit to his Rwanda human trafficking scheme – are causing real harm, his Covid policies have killed over 200,000 people while enriching his cronies and his constant power grabbing have pulled power into the UK Executive (read: the PM) and have disrupted our ability to vote freely, destabilised the autonomy of the devolved Parliaments, the primacy of the UK Parliament and he has torn up the last tattered shreds of what passes for the UK Constitution. He should not go down in the annals of history as one of the UK’s “great” politicians.
And yet…who comes next is looking very likely to be even worse.
Since 2017, I’ve been collecting and deeply diving into Scottish polling data around independence. The last full report was published a little under a year ago but with the re-launch of the independence campaign ahead of the independence referendum that the Scottish Government hopes to hold next October, now is a good time to revisit that study. While I keep an eye on all polling from all polling companies in Scotland I tend to restrict my deeper analysis to those published by Panelbase as they tend to break up their dataset into more varied subsets than others like YouGov and thus provide a richer story for those trying to find out not just how many people support independence but who they are. Since August last year, there have only been five Panelbase polls asking Scotland about independence, including the one just released this week, so there isn’t yet enough data to publish another full Demographics of Indy report. However, given that this latest poll is the first since the First Minster’s indyref announcement and it returned a majority for support for independence I felt it was worth giving a mini-update in this news column. Please read the full policy paper series – comprising the 2021, 2018 and 2017 editions – for my methodologies and all of the caveats involved in peering darkly through the lens of polling data.
I have an update to my article from a few weeks back on Freedom of Information. In that article I made the case that our FOI laws are woefully insufficient. An FOI request allows you to bring Government information into the public domain simply by you asking for it. To look at it another way, all information that could be released by an FOI request is already potentially in the public domain but for the lack of the appropriate question being asked. This is a major limit in itself as to get at that information:- First we need to be able to ask that appropriate question.
However my wife Ellen and I discovered that what we mean by “public domain” and what the Scottish Government means by it may be two very different things. It appeared to us that while the Government regularly publishes the replies to FOI requests to its online archive, it does not appear to publish every reply there though they consider a private reply directly to the requester to be equivalent to posting the information into the public domain. Communication with the Information Commissioner revealed that there was no legal obligation for the Government to post replies to a public archive at all, merely that it was considered “best practice”. As we had personal experience of an FOI request not being posted to that archive and it got us wondering how often this happened. By examining the unique serial codes of the FOI requests that were published and making the assumption that they were assigned to requests sequentially as they arrived, I estimated that around 30% of replies made it to the public archive. But I thought I could do better than that so I decided to FOI some information about FOIs.