Democrat, Renew Thyself!

“And he said unto them, Ye will surely say unto me this proverb, Physician, heal thyself: whatsoever we have heard done in Capernaum, do also here in thy country.” – The Bible, Luke 4:23

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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governments in that UK, the fact that devolution is granted essentially at the pleasure of the UK Government and can be withdrawn or overridden at any time and, most importantly for a document promoting Scottish independence, the fact that despite pro-independence parties winning several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.

Local Democracy

At the risk of burying the lede of high profile Scottish politics at a national and constitutional level, I want to start with the glaring omission within Scottish democracy. Scotland entirely lacks a form of local democracy that our European colleagues would call “normal”. While some (but not all) of our villages and towns have Community Councils, these councils are nowhere near powerful enough and their annual budgets extend to hundreds, not even thousands, of pounds per year. They are not in any way comparable to the municipal councils and communes that are ubiquitous in Europe. This is important. One cannot make an argument that the desire for independence is driven by the principle that decisions are made best by the people who live there whilst simultaneously denying that ability to places where decisions are made for communities by “Local” Authorities that may be seated many hours of travel away. Nearly 20 per cent of all public spending in my father-in-law’s area in Germany is controlled by his municipal council. In Scotland, I don’t even have a Community Council but even if I did, that equivalent percentage, beyond ad hoc public grants or suchlike, would be zero per cent. The other reason that I want to start from the local level is that I hope that an independent Scotland would embed a system of subsidiary in all of its politics. This principle says that the default option for all policies and powers is that they should be delivered from and by the lowest tier of democratic politics and only devolved up to a higher tier if and only if a case can be made to do so. This is a complete inversion of the UK system where Westminster and The Crown are sovereign, that some of those powers are devolved “down” to the Scottish Parliament  and then powers are devolved down again to Local Authorities. (Note: The Scotland Act does indeed follow the principle that all powers of governance in Scotland lie with the Scottish Parliament except those powers which are retained by Westminster but Westminster also reserves the right to change, ignore or override the Scotland Act at its own whim).

Scotland cannot properly correct inequalities such as the hollowing out of our towns or the abject failure to enact proper land reform unless we have a robust level of local democracy to guide, build and anchor it.

Regional Democracy

Much of Scottish regional democracy (as administered by our “Local” Authorities) is characterised by constant fights for funding from the Scottish Parliament. Whilst charged with administering and dispensing significant budgets, the LAs have very little control over their own revenue streams (much less, as a percentage of total revenue, than the Scottish Parliament has). Even the tax levers that LAs do nominally control – like Council Tax – are pressed heavily by the thumb of the Scottish Parliament who regularly threaten, cajole and bribe LAs to set rates to fit national headlines rather than regional needs. Perish the thought of reforming that tax into something that isn’t based on measuring what houses were worth more than 30 years ago, never mind the possibility of allowing Councils to tax land or wealth. Certainly don’t even think about giving Councils the resources to use the powers over public transport that the Scottish Government finally graced upon them. Taking responsibilities over care – and their attendant revenue streams – and casting them up to a non-democratic “Care Board” that may well cover the area governed by several Local Authorities because corporate advisors at KPMG thought it would be a good idea? That can be done.

It’s almost no wonder that the UK Government has made such headway in driving an even deeper wedge between LAs and the Scottish Parliament via things like the City Deals and offers to directly fund what-should-be devolved infrastructure projects. An independent Scotland needs to develop a much healthier relationship between its national Parliament and the Local Authorities. Devolved Scotland needs that healthier relationship even more.

National Democracy

The section on democracy within the Scottish Parliament is just about the briefest section in the entire white paper – just two thirds of one page. If you read it alone, you’d think that Scottish democracy at the Parliament level is completely fine, we’ve got proportional representation sorted up here and we have a healthy, collaborative and collegiate atmosphere between the political parties. That recent years have seen Governments in Scotland formed via not just majority single-party rule but also formal coalitions, informal cooperation agreements and minority governments is taken as a sign of the Scottish system’s superiority over the Westminster First Past The Post system. This is despite the fact that the UK Government has also been formed by all of these options within the past decade.

It seems odd too for the white paper to illustrate Scotland’s “proportional” electoral system with a chart showing the SNP winning almost 25% more seats in the Scottish Parliament than their vote share would suggest.

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The Additional Member System (AMS) is indeed a vast improvement over FPTP but its expression in Scotland harbours some deep democratic inequalities too. For a start, most of our MSPs are still elected via the same undemocratic FPTP system as Westminster uses. Only about 40% of our MSPs are elected via the proportional Regional vote with the other 60% coming from the constituencies. The result of this is that Parties large enough to win a decent number of constituency seats will tend to be “overrepresented” in the Scottish Parliament while those who cannot – or who choose to stand only in the Regional ballots – tend to be under-represented in Parliament. This can be seen in the graph above of the 2021 Scottish elections where both the SNP and the Conservatives won more seats than their proportion of the votes would have suggested whereas Labour, the Lib Dems and the Greens won fewer seats than their vote share would suggest.

Another result of the specific setup in the Scottish elections is that to win any seats at all requires a comparatively large vote share which represents a barrier to entry for smaller, newer or special interest parties. In many proportional voting countries, there is a legally mandated minimum vote share required to win any seats at all – usually two or five per cent. In Scotland there is no minimum threshold but in a practical sense, a party needs to win at least five per cent to have a chance of a seat and more like seven or eight to be reasonably sure of getting one. No party has won a seat in the Scottish Parliament on the basis of a regional vote share below five per cent in a single region.

I would like to see the Scottish Parliament reform itself along the lines of the German Bundestag. The voting system is in broad strokes similar there to here but with some significant differences in many of the details. First, the baseline is that the number of constituency and regional seats is the same. There is no advantage to be had by “gaming” the FPTP system to win more seats than a party is due. Second, the counting system for the votes is slightly different and acts to favour smaller parties at the expense of larger ones (this isn’t a big effect but it effectively means that if there is a “rounding error” in the vote tallies, then in the Scottish system, one would tend to round towards a large party whereas in Germany you’d tend to round towards a smaller one). Finally, the Bundestag is not of fixed size. Seats are added to the Parliament so that the parties who are under-represented are “topped up” until they have a number of seats equal to their proportional vote. If you won fifteen per cent of the Regional votes across Germany, you’ll get very close to fifteen per cent of the seats. Ballot Box Scotland neatly illustrates the impact of each of these changes in a Twitter thread here. I’d also like to see a discussion about “Open List” voting in the regional ballots where voters (not just party members at best or party leaders at worst) can have a say on the people on the party lists. Like a party but dislike who they’ve suggested for top of the party list? Many countries in Europe allow you to “re-order” that list to your liking.

The Head of State

This really is one of those discussions for which now is almost never the time. With the best will in the world, the UK is only a short time away from transitioning its head of state from one monarch to another – an event that is outwith the lifetime of all but an ever-shrinking minority of the population of the UK.  If now isn’t the time to discuss transitioning to an elected republic…and the day of the coming State Funeral isn’t the time…and the subsequent Coronation of their successor isn’t the time, and nor is any time before independence….when is?

Cards on the table, I’m an ardent Republican. Democratic renewal to me means that no-one should be barred from an office of state by dint of their lack of Magic BloodTM and that no-one should be compelled into a job because of their having it. The Office of the Head of State should be elected. What that Office is responsible for and what it represents as an icon of national identity is up for a bit more negotiation and I’m not quite sure what I’m looking for there yet but I want to have that discussion.

When Scotland becomes independent it is likely that we’ll remain a monarchy for at least some transitional period. This is certainly the position of the SNP and there may be some merit in it if it helps us to build a sense of “losers consent” with pro-Union voters who will be hurting just as hard after losing a 2023 independence referendum as we were in 2014 after we lost that one. A compromise solution does present itself however. In most former UK territories the position of Head of State was delegated to another, often non-Royal, individual rather than the monarch themselves. This allowed the monarch to, at the very least, not have to officially meet themselves when they went to visit that territory. The name for this position is unfortunate though. An independent Scotland does not need a Governor-General. A Crown Representative could, however, be the Kingdom of Scotland’s acting Head of State and would be invested with most of the powers that the monarch currently has in Scotland (ratifying laws, meeting and greeting, being the ultimate fallback in a constitutional crisis etc). Officially, the Crown Representative in other nations is appointed by the monarch on the advice of the government of that country. Scotland could be the same but there is absolutely no reason why the government could delegate that advice to the people of Scotland. We could elect our Crown Representative just as we would a President of the Republic of Scotland. It’s not an ideal situation for a Republican like myself and I’d continue to campaign for Scotland to throw off the relic of privilege and exclusion inherent to monarchy just as countries like Jamaica and Barbados are doing…but I could live with an elected Crown Representative until that day comes.

The Constitution

None of this works without a codified, written constitution. We’ve seen and are seeing in real time exactly what happens when a country like the UK with a leader like Boris Johnson decides to tear through the gentlemen’s agreements that hold the country together in lieu of one. Just last week the UK has been discussing an element of the its constitutional law that is derived from an anonymous letter to a newspaper. That is no way to run a country.

It is disappointing that the Scottish Government’s democratic renewal white paper makes scant reference to an independent Scotland having a written constitution. It’s in there, including a reference that says: “The sovereignty of the people of Scotland – rather than the sovereignty of any parliament – can be written into a constitution.” but this is far from a ringing endorsement of the idea. I know that many groups are working on this already and have their own ideas about what should be in it and even how it should be written. In brief, Scotland will have to spend the time between an indyref and Independence Day building a transitional constitution that will essential keep the country running until we can have a broader debate about the full and final constitution to come after that. Rather than dive into the detail of this process though I’ll pass over to the discussion I had recently with Constitutional expert Elliot Bulmer on the Policy Podcast.

Conclusion

The point of all of this is that we should not be too high and mighty about our own democratic politics in Scotland compared to the UK. “Better than England” doesn’t necessarily mean “good” (consider, for instance, the fact that a child poverty rate of 21% in Scotland is simultaneously appalling and the best in the UK). These democratic deficits could and should be fixed in an independent Scotland but…each one of them can also already be fixed now. It is within the power of the Scottish Parliament to reform itself, our Regional Authorities and institute a normal level of local democracy. Yes, independence is still required to have those reasoned discussions about higher level politics such as the Constitution and the Head of State and independence absolutely will free Scotland from everything we do being taken away by the increasingly centralisation demanded by the “One Nation” strand of nationalism now fundamental to UK Conservatives, Labour and the Liberal Democrats. But that threat hangs over us regardless and no matter how close or far away the promise of independence is from Scotland at any given point it shouldn’t prevent us from making many of these vital reforms now. Indeed, showing what a modern democracy looks like at the local level may be key to helping people understand what independence, democracy and democratic renewal can deliver for them at the other levels too.

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