Last week the Scottish Government, represented by Nicola Sturgeon and Patrick Harvie, launched the first paper in a series of papers framing their view of the next stage of the Scottish Independence campaign. This first paper – Independence in the Modern World. Wealthier, Happier, Fairer: Why Not Scotland? – is described as a “scene setter” and a description of the world as it is now rather than what it could be under independence. As such, it probably raised more questions from than delivered answers to the journalists at the press conference. It does nothing to answer or advance arguments around currency, borders or pensions or any of the other topics that I and other independence activists have been immersed in for a decade now but it wasn’t ever supposed to. All this paper has done is take several economic metrics such as GDP and inequality and compared the UK to several other countries in Europe. We’ve seen this approach before:– this paper is essentially an abbreviated and updated version of the first third of the 2018 report by Andrew Wilson’s Sustainable Growth Commission and the ideology that informed that report is woven throughout this new one.
(Since the original publication of this post, Ellen joined me on the Common Weal Policy Podcast to discuss the issues raised in more detail. You can listen to that show here.)
Common Weal has been at the forefront of Scottish democratic and governance reform since our inception – it’s one of the things that attracted me personally into the orbit of the organisation. One of our earliest campaign success stories was the creation of the Scottish lobbying register which, despite its many and still critical flaws, at least gives us some insight into who is talking to the Scottish Government and about what. Another area where we’ve been gaining ground is our ongoing campaign for better Scottish statistics – the Scottish Government has still not picked up our call for a dedicated Scottish Statistics Agency to fill gaps in data provision despite overwhelming support from SNP members three years ago.
Where these two areas intersect is how we, as citizens, gain access to data and information produced by the government which might be difficult to find or not published at all. You have a right called Freedom of Information which allows you to ask public bodies (including the government itself) about the information it holds on various topics. It can be a question such as how much has been spent on a project? Or how many times a Minister has met a specific person? Or anything else that isn’t routinely published or that the Government has good reason to not publish (perhaps due to national security concerns). There are, of course, caveats such as declining to publish information that would be difficult or expensive to obtain (perhaps the question was too broad or requires someone to trawl through a half-forgotten archive of paper records). All of this legislation is important. If we don’t know who is talking to government, what government is telling itself or what they’re not telling us then we cannot hold them to account for their actions. I’d go as far to say that an opaque government is inherently corrupt or, at least, cannot adequately demonstrate that it is not.
These reforms include ending “corporate confidentiality” in public-private contracts after the contracts have been signed (so we know precisely how much we’re spending and on what – especially on large infrastructure projects), mandating that private companies in receipt of public money should be covered by FOI when they spend it (so that government can’t hide behind a wall of privatisation), and – most serious of all – that government should end its unlawful practice of treating FOI requests from some people differently from others (such as allowing Ministers to “review”, delay or block FOI requests submitted by journalists). One of our key recommendations was to address a fundamental flaw in the FOI process itself which is that in order to get information into the public domain, you first need to be able to ask a question about it.
To ask the question “For the minutes of the meeting between the Minister for Energy and Coal Billionaire Joe McSmoke in August 2019?”, you first need to have some kind of suspicion that such a meeting even took place and that there’s a possibility that it was minuted and that those minutes were recorded in a way that is publishable. Instead, we’ve called for public bodies to adopt what we’ve termed to be a “Glass Wall” approach whereby any information that would normally be disclosed by a properly submitted FOI should be proactively published in a browsable archive (we may still need to submit something similar to an FOI to the curator of said archive to be able find said information but the point is that you wouldn’t need to).
I’m glad to say that many of these suggestions were accepted by the Committee and, eventually, by the Government itself. It brought about an investigation by the Information Commissioner to ensure that the recommendations were being carried out (especially the ending of unlawful interference of FOI by ministers) and which published last week.
It was this report that led me to discovering another fundamental flaw in the FOI process that surprised me and also throws the entire system into serious doubt as to its ability to ensure transparent government.
Folk in Indy circles will no doubt be aware of the ongoing story about the UK Government’s “secret polling” into public attitudes on the Union. This polling was done in around 2018 (so is almost certainly out of date now) but was never publicly published. A court case recently concluded with an instruction to publish the data and the latest in this story is that the UK Government is still refusing to publish and may need to be challenged again.
However, there is a twist to this story. When this all kicked off last year my wife Ellen asked the obvious but unasked question – If the UK Government isn’t publishing its polling on attitudes towards independence, why couldn’t the Scottish Government publish its own internal polling on the topic? Even better, once both were published, we could compare and contrast the results of the various questions asked. Not being able to find that polling in any of the public databases, Ellen submitted an FOI for its release and, to both of our surprise, we were told that the reason that this data hadn’t be published before and couldn’t be published now was because the Scottish Government hadn’t conducted any public polling on attitudes in the time between January 2018 and July 2021 when the request was submitted.
This could and should have been a major story last year and Ellen planned to send it around journalistic circles just as soon as a linkable version appeared on the Scottish Government FOI database. Several days passed without it doing so. Then weeks. Then a couple of months. To this day, if you search for her FOI request it still returns no result.
The Information Commissioner’s report last week brought the topic back to the front of our mind and Ellen contacted the Commissioner to try to find out if there was a reason that this FOI would not be published. The prompt reply frankly shocked us. A private reply to an FOI is considered by the Scottish Government to be a fulfilment of FOI legislation and puts the information into the “public domain” but there is no obligation in the legislation for the reply to be entered into a public database. Doing so is merely considered “best practice”.
Consider this for a moment. There is an obligation on the Scottish Government to respond to FOI requests but so long as they give the information to the person who asked the question, there is no obligation on them to let anyone else know about it. But, as it is now a public document, “leaking” it as I have done above isn’t even leaking – it’s just sharing a public document.
But this leads us to another question – how many FOI requests have been answered by private email and not shared more widely? I don’t think it’s a question anyone but the Scottish Government can answer with certainty but there may be a way of taking at least a stab at it. Whenever you submit an FOI request, you are given a unique reference number. That number – as per Ellen’s FOI above – takes the form of the year of submission and then a string of numbers. That string of numbers appears to be not random but at least somewhat sequential. The earliest FOI in the database is FoI/16/00690 published on October 23rd 2017 and the most recent as of the time of writing – published on May 24th 2022 – is FOI/202200296591. As of the time of writing there are 8879 FOI replies in the database. I don’t know if the sequence of ID numbers includes documents other than FOIs (is document 202200296592 some other letter to or from a civil servant perhaps?) but I can’t imagine why it would. It may be that some of these FOIs have been sent to other public bodies (such as Local Authorities) and published in their own databases but – as said above – we have a clear example of at least one FOI to the Scottish Government that has not been published. Assuming each of these numbers does refer solely to a unique FOI request and its reply and the reference number is as sequential as it appears to be then that may suggest that in the worst case, less than 30% of FOI requests to the Scottish Government have been published in a public manner beyond a direct reply to the person who submitted the request. I dearly hope there’s an explanation out there that means that things aren’t as bad as that. If anyone has one, please do let me know.
I’d be really interested to hear your experiences with this. If you have submitted an FOI request and found that your reply is not on the database then let us know. I’m not sure what we can do from there. We could probably do more to train up volunteers to submit FOIs and have them share their replies with us but how can we do more than that? Does Common Weal have to publish these FOIs ourselves? Do we have to partner with some journalists to create a “Shadow Repository” of all of the FOIs the Government didn’t want you to see? Will just the threat of doing so force an explanation from the Government? Whether by actual legislation or, as a distant second, firm departmental commitments to actually follow “best practice” the Scottish Government should and must publish ALL FOI requests that it responds to. Even the “frivolous” ones. Even the “vexatious” ones. Even the “inconvenient” ones from journalists and especially even the ones that reveal that the Scottish Government hasn’t been doing work that it should have been doing as it prepares to fight another independence campaign. For their part, the Information Commissioner’s office confirmed to us that it is not within their remit to force FOI replies to be published again, because it is not a statutory requirement.
As I said at the top of this piece, I don’t think we can have a functioning democracy without transparency and accountability. Corruption is inevitable if power remains in the dark and behind closed doors. If only a select few have access to information, the same results. From a very practical standpoint, it’s also a complete waste of resources to have to blindly keep asking the same FOI questions because you didn’t know that someone else asked for the same information some time before you. In a very real sense there can be no freedom without freedom of information. The Scottish Government can and must ensure that all of us can see what it is doing at all times. If they don’t, we have to ask the final obvious, unasked question. What, precisely, are they hiding from us?
“Take a census of all the congregation of the sons of Israel, by their families, by their fathers’ households, according to the number of names, every male, head by head from twenty years old and upward, whoever is able to go out to war in Israel, you and Aaron shall number them by their armies. With you, moreover, there shall be a man of each tribe, each one head of his father’s household.” – The Bible, Numbers, 1, 2-5
If you haven’t done so already, please compete and submit your census. If you have already done so, thank you – and please encourage your friends and family to submit theirs if they haven’t.
There are many reasons to ensure that you do – not least because it’s a legal obligation and should be considered as much a part of your civic duty as paying taxes, voting and serving on a jury. It is by far and away the most important statistical exercise conducted by our nation and goes a long way towards informing public policy directly and helping to correct and anchor other forms of data gathering. I make this plea as an informant of public policy and an unabashed stats geek. Neither I nor Common Weal have been paid by the Scottish Government to write this article (we wouldn’t accept such a payment even if it was offered). They haven’t even asked us to write this. We’re doing this because we understand how important it is that it gets done properly. Our own ability to create and analyse policy depends on access to high quality, accurate data and the census is one of the most important tools in our box of facts and information.
“When you are in local government, you are on the ground, and you are looking into the eyes and hearts of the people you are there to serve. It teaches you to listen; it teaches you to be expansive in the people with whom you talk to, and I think that that engagement gives you political judgment.” – Valerie Jarrett
Scotland is now in full campaign mode for our Local Authority elections. There will be leaflets stuffed through letterboxes. There will be photos of smiling campaigners with their Great Responses At The Doors. There will be enticements and blame games, celebrations of political records and promises of what will absolutely, definitely come your way if you only vote for one candidate or another.
For a first time or an inexperienced voter, this can be a confusing time – especially when various parties are all telling you to vote in a particular way. If you do happen to be a first time voter and would like to know how the voting system works in this election and how your vote translates into seats then I have written a political party neutral guide over on my personal blog here. I’m also in the process of collecting as many party manifestos as I can here – not as an endorsement of any them but to make it easier to compare and contrast all of them.
I’m proud of my own push for elected office five years ago and I really think it’s a thing that as many people as possible should do and should be able to do at least once. Even if you don’t win (as I didn’t), there’s a certain rite of passage to it and it can act as a window into a world that would otherwise be even more closed off and opaque that it currently is. The more people who are directly involved in politics, the less the sector is able to close itself off into a clique who act only for themselves.
There’s another barrier in Scotland that acts to prevent people getting involved in the politics of the country and that’s Scotland’s abnormally centralised democracy. What we’re right now calling our “Local” elections are anything but. That lack of democracy is not just a barrier to politics getting done but also a barrier to people (especially people with young families or accessibility needs) from getting involved in politics – if folk are barred from making decisions that affect them, they will always come off the worst for it.
In most countries in Europe there are up to four tiers of Government. The largest you could call “National” or “Federal”, below that you’ll find some kind of “State” level government, then a “Regional” government and finally, the most local of all, a “local” or “municipal” government. These lowest tiers of government are often extremely small. Rarely larger than a whole town or a collection of villages but sometimes as small as a single hamlet – the smallest municipality in Germany is the island of Gröde in Germany with a population of just seven people.
In Scotland, there are effectively three tiers of government that exercise power over our lives and communities. Being a unitary state, the “National” government is the UK Parliament in Westminster. The devolved Scottish Parliament is the closest we have to a “State” Government – for the important differences in parity, power and esteem between a devolved government and a true state government, see my paper on UK Federalism here. Below this, we have our “Local” Authorities – many of which are larger in geography and/or population than some small European countries. Below this, we have effectively nothing. Even many English parish councils are more powerful. We do have a statutory right to Community Councils and don’t get me wrong, the places that do have functioning and effective Community Councils do see good work come out of them but they are not a substitute for municipal government. For a start, these councils have next to no actual power and effectively no budget. This lack of power has led to an ossification in many places where the council has become dysfunctional and a place where small fish exercise their control over even smaller ponds. Worse, across about half of Scotland, these community councils don’t exist at all. This includes my own village where a suggestion a few years ago to the local community group that we should form one was met with a horrified, despairing reaction of “but that means we might have to have elections”.
My wife and her family are German so their example is the one closest to me in terms of comparative experience. My Schwiegervater lives, geopolitically, in a very similar place to us in Scotland. We both live in a village (ours with about 2,000 people; his about 700), near a slightly larger town (ours with about 15,000 people; his about 30,000) and within a reasonable commute of a major city of about a million-ish people (Glasgow for us, Cologne for him). Above that, our “State” populations diverge somewhat – North Rhine-Westphalia has a population of about 17 million compared to Scotland’s 5.4-ish million. Then, of course, Germany is a little larger than the UK with populations of 83 million and 67 million respectively.
Now, comparing the respective power of each of these government tiers is inevitably tricky. Absolute or even per-capita spends don’t always tell the full story – for example, German public spending per capita is significantly lower than UK public spend per capita and a good chunk of the difference appears to lie in the fact that German healthcare is largely privatised. What may be a slightly better way of looking at things is to examine where public spending is controlled as a percentage of overall budgets. This line of reasoning led me down a rabbit hole of trying to track down, translate and then read piles of German municipal budget records. It’s about as fun as you can imagine (for a stats geek…quite a lot!). It also led me to speaking about that journey in the keynote speech to the Scottish Community Development Network at the tail end of last year and which you can watch below:
What we find in Scotland is that spending is incredibly centralised. About 84% of public spending in (or on behalf of) Scotland for “me” in my area is controlled by either the UK or Scottish Government. The remaining 14% is controlled by my “local” authority in South Lanarkshire – a region that stretches from the outskirts of Glasgow, through the urban Central Belt of Hamilton and East Kilbride down through rural Clydesdale till it meets the Borders.
As I mentioned above, I don’t have a Community Council in my village but even if I did, they wouldn’t control any public budgets to speak of.
Contrast this with Germany where the Federal Government isn’t even the “most powerful” tier of government in terms of spending on my father-in-law’s public services and between them and the state government in North Rhine-Westphalia only account for only about 70% of total public spending. Cologne’s regional government is significantly less powerful than South Lanarkshire at about 10% of total spending but look at the difference in spending from a local level. Almost one public euro in every five is spent directly by the local municipal council that, in his area, covers the local town and its surrounding villages. As an interesting aside, I also discovered that our two regions have a public Participatory Budgeting scheme and Cologne’s has been praised as an example to look at in European democratic circles. However, on a per capita basis it is only a fraction of the size of South Lanarkshire’s own PB scheme. This could be a subject for another time but I wonder if the comparative strength of German local government means that it simply doesn’t need such ad hoc funding streams to fill in the gaps.
Common Weal has already published a blueprint for local government reform in Scotland that would restore some form of localism – our Development Councils take the best of what our Community Councils have to offer but expand, improve and empower them and the citizens of the community who would control them. They would, yes, be based on a model of drawing powers down from Local Authorities but that should preclude a wider discussion about devolving powers from elsewhere. The example of Germany shows that if Scotland does decide to restore a form of truly local government then it cannot be a case solely of devolving powers from regional government to local but should involve a wholesale view of where powers should lie across the board. I am a big believer in subsidiarity which means that powers shouldn’t be devolved down from above at all. Instead, all power should be presumed to lie with the municipal government and only devolved upwards to a higher level when a compelling case is made to do so.
And, of course, while I’ve discussed powers of public spending here I haven’t touched at all powers of tax and revenue raising. The same principles should apply here too and local councils should be granted much more in the way of ability to fund its own programmes (balanced, of course, by some kind of levelling mechanism between richer and poorer regions). The irony of the Scottish Government right now is that it is quick (though correct) to complain that its own powers and own funding avenues are too limited and too tightly controlled by the government above it but then treats the government below it in almost exactly the same way with even the one major tax power in the hands of Local Authorities – Council Tax – tied up just as tightly and too often used as leverage against our councils.
As we go and vote in our “local” elections this year we have to remember that the way Scotland is run is very far from what our neighbours in Europe would call normal. Campaigns for this kind of democratic reform in Scotland are not coming from a place of “radical transformation”. We’re already the outlier in a continent where democracy starts at your doorstep. It’s the country we deserve too. Creating it merely requires those who currently grip tightly to their reigns of power – at all levels above the local – let go a little and trust us to run ourselves. For those of us in the independence movement, this is already one of the most compelling arguments in favour of our national cause. Scotland deserves to be a normal country and that starts with allowing us to make decisions right here, on our doorsteps.
Like many of us, I try my best to do right by the waste my lifestyle inevitably produces. I try to shop responsibly to minimise the air miles my food racks up. I try to avoid purchasing anything that produces more waste than it must. I try to reuse and repair as much as I can (Ok, so my wife is better at repairing things than I am but still…). And I try to separate my waste into the appropriate bins when the time comes to throw things away. But I’m becoming increasingly exasperated with the limits of this. I can see the results in my bins just before they go out for collection which still contain far too much in the way of un-recyclable plastics and other materials.
So I was genuinely interested when Tesco announced that it was going to start collecting a lot of these “soft plastics” at its stores for recycling. Especially as it included a lot of hard to recycle products like crisp packets and clingfilm wraps. When they installed a collection bin at my local supermarket I applauded it. It’s a good idea – or at least it would have been if it had worked.
As the local elections loom, Scottish voters should be considering not just which candidates or parties we vote for in those election but also what we expect them to do with the power we loan them with that vote. Party manifestos are beginning to be launched so, as with the Scottish Parliamentary Elections last year, I’ll do my best to collect as many of them as I can in one place (do email me if you find one I might miss, such as from the smaller parties).
Today though, I want to discuss just one of the powers that I believe is being badly mishandled in Scotland for no reason other than the lack of political will to change it.
The sky above the port was the color of television, tuned to a dead channel. – William Gibson
So began William Gibson’s 1984 novel Neuromancer and so began what is now known as the Cyberpunk genre. So began countless other generation-defining books, films, works of art, technology inspired by the ideas the genre explored. So began me – 1984 was the year I was born. Cyberpunk is my generation.
Cyberpunk is a world of crushing dystopia. Tortured air and acid rains bleach the life and soul out of polluted cities. There is no society or community here. An individual is one against millions, toiling thanklessly to meet a quota set by an uncaring human if you’re lucky; an equally uncaring AI if you’re not. This is a world where Megacorporations rule to the point that even Governments can do little to prevent them sucking the last dregs of the world’s resources into their ever growing, ever insatiable maws. Technology can provide you with the kinds of miracles that once founded religions but only at a terrible cost. And yet there are those who still work at the edges of this world, or beneath it, or hidden within it, who still fight for what hope remains in the world. Cyberpunk is often about celebrating the rebels fighting against crushing authority. Those who refuse to accept that which others tell them is “inevitable”. Victories are sometimes fleeting, sometimes they are indeed entirely futile, but victories are still possible. Hope can still be found in the “desert of the real”, even if it is a grimy, flawed and compromised kind of hope.
But in Gibson’s opening it is a curiously analogue metaphor that defines the digital frontier of cyberpunk. A sky as grey as analogue static. You don’t have to be much younger than me to be someone who doesn’t understand that metaphor in the same way that I can. The UK – by far not the frontrunner in this particular technological race – completed its television digital switchover a decade ago. For generations now and those to come the dead channel of television will be a brilliant sky blue.
In my analysis of GERS last year, I remarked that this was in a very real sense the end of an era not in the sense that it would show us anything different from the previous years but that it was the last year that wouldn’t. Covid has upended the entire world and for statisticians that means the worst possible thing that could ever happen to their data tables – a discontinuity.
“Elections belong to the people. It’s their decision. If they decide to turn their back on the fire and burn their behinds, then they will just have to sit on their blisters.” – Abraham Lincoln
A strange election in strange times has, after more than the usual delay, returned a result that seems almost strangely familiar. Prior to the 2016 election, the “received wisdom” was that the majority SNP government was going to come back to power with that majority and thus usher in five years of “boring government” under a “one party state”. Instead, we got a minority government and everything that followed from that. This time round, the challenge to “restore” that majority government was rejected and we again find ourselves with a Parliament that looks really quite similar to the one in 2016. Many of the names have changed, many of the seats have not. The SNP have fallen one seat short of a majority, the Tories remain the “2nd party” by equalling their previous tally, the Greens have increased their ranks and Labour and the Lib Dems have reduced. Despite enthusiastic campaigning by their activist, no new parties have entered Parliament and none have left either (though the Lib Dems have dropped below the “major party” threshold which may have significant implications for them). From a pure democratic stance, at 63% the turnout was the highest of the devolution era – despite or in spite of fears that the pandemic would suppress it. More voters is always a good thing. As is diversity in the Parliament with record numbers of women, people of colour and other underrepresented groups in the House.
A full breakdown of the results in each constituency and region can be found here.
There will be discussion over the coming days about the makeup of Government and whether the SNP continue to run as a minority or whether they form a formal coalition – most likely with the Greens. For my part, with a track record of two minority governments I think that a coalition is unlikely and my preference would be against one anyway for reasons I’ll detail below but primarily because of my feeling laid out on Thursday that a Government that can rely on whipped loyalty will make less good decisions than one that has to justify itself to Parliament.
The call for a second independence referendum must now intensify. There is a Parliamentary majority capable of passing a referendum bill and instructing the Government to proceed with its manifesto promise. Indeed, between the SNP and the Greens there is now as many pro-independence MSPs in Parliament now as there were in 2011 when the first indyref was initiated. Mandates are sure to be traded – some more, some less valid – and we’re still lacking an effective pressure campaign to keep the tactical and strategic advantage on our side, but I think it is likely now that the only person who can actively prevent an independence referendum within the next Scottish Parliament is now Nicola Sturgeon. The campaign is there for her to take and run with.
For more detailed analysis of each of the parties and the overall political landscape, keep reading below the fold.