Democracy on your Doorstep

“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

(This blog post previously appeared in Common Weal’s weekly newsletter. Sign up for the newsletter here.)

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:

Scottish Community Development Network

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.

Public Spending in Scotland
Public Spending in Germany

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.

TCG Logo 2019

But It’s Reserved!

“When you have no real power, go public — really public. The public is where the real power is.” – Elizabeth Warren

The nature of Scotland’s devolved settlement is that the country is simultaneously less powerful than many would like but more powerful than many would give it credit. The reserved powers list in Schedule 5 of the Scotland Act are quite clear and the Scottish Government can and has been taken to court when it has attempted to overreach its powers. However the areas of devolved powers are broad and cross-cutting enough that it is often possible to effect change in defiance of Westminster simply by looking for the cracks and loopholes within those reserved and devolved powers.

We have also seen the pandemic reveal that some powers (such as the power to close or restrict borders) which were previously assumed to be reserved have, in fact, been substantially devolved. Until the pandemic struck it would have been considered unthinkable that the Scottish Government could effectively order the closure of the Anglo-Scottish border – and yet, for a time, it was (that the closure wasn’t particularly well policed and enforced is another matter entirely).

Scotland pushed against reserved Westminster policy many times – mostly significantly by using powers over planning permission to effectively block nuclear power and onshore fracking in Scotland. A larger challenge looms in the form of offshore oil and gas, but I believe that the Scottish Government could go further that it current does in terms of opposing oil extraction around Scotland despite the powers to do so being largely reserved.

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(Source: Unsplash)

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Scottish Elections 2021:- The Results

“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.

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(Source 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.

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To Those We Are About To Elect

“Leadership is about vision and responsibility, not power.” – Seth Berkley

This has been an unusual election, put upon us by unusual times. The pressures of the global Covid pandemic here in Scotland have greatly limited electoral campaigning (though I do believe there’s a bright future ahead for digital and semi-digital hustings and other meetings) and the count itself has been extended to allow for the safety of the staff involved. The grand tradition of watching over-tired politicians and pundits trying to say nothing for as long as possible between 10pm and the first results coming in was pretty much absent in Scotland this year. Normally, around this time, I’d be reporting on the results and my analysis of them but as things stand we’re not expecting the first Constituency results in Scotland until this evening and as the Regional results can only be tallied once all of the Constituency results are in, we’re not expecting the final results until Saturday night or maybe even Sunday morning.

Instead of that analysis (which shall come when we have the results) I want to write an open letter to all of the politicians who will take up seats in the upcoming Parliament.

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How Scotland Votes: A Guide to the 2021 Scottish Election

Disclosure and Disclaimer: Although I am politically active and an active member of the Scottish Green Party, this post is intended to be objective and politically neutral. This is a guide on how to vote, not a blog trying to convince you to vote for or against any particular person or party.

Introduction

On May 6th, Scotland will once again go to the polls to elect a new Parliament. This will be the sixth election since the re-establishment of the Scottish Parliament in 1999 and the second election since I started writing this blog and these “How to Vote” guides. You can read my previous guides to elections in the UK behind these links which cover the 2016 Scottish Parliamentary Elections, the 2017 UK General Elections, the 2017 Scottish Local Authority Elections, the 2019 EU Parliamentary Elections, and the 2019 UK General Elections.

This will also be the second Scottish Parliamentary election that will include voters who were born after the re-establishment of Parliament and possibly the first to include election candidates who were born after the start of the devolution era.

It is also the first Scottish Election to involve voters from Scotland’s newly expanded electoral franchise. Whilst 16 year olds were enabled to vote in elections follow the 2014 independence referendum, the Scottish Electoral Franchise Act returned voting rights to EU/EEA citizens who had them stripped from them as part of Brexit but also extended voting rights to non-EU citizens. Anyone in Scotland who is aged 16 or over on May 6th and has right to permanently reside in Scotland. Limited voting rights have also been extended to prisoners who can vote if they are serving a sentence of less than one year (though the recent presumption against prison sentences of less than one year means that this affects very few prisoners – perhaps only around 500 individuals). As a result, Scotland has the second most expansive electoral franchise in the UK (Wales also allows all permanent residents aged 16+ to vote but has extended prisoner voting to those serving less than four years) and, prisoner voting aside, one of the most expansive franchises of all European democracies.

The result of this is that this election will include the voice of tens of thousands of people who have, until now, been unable to vote in the country they pay their taxes and many call “home”. As noted in my disclaimer at the top of this article, I am a politically active person but this blog isn’t about any of that. I want to walk first-time voters through the voting system for this election. Whomever you actually vote for, this is how to do it.

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We Need To Talk About: GERS (2019-2020 Edition)

“Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it without a sense of ironic futility.” – Errol Morris

This article was previously published on Source under the headline “The UK is Pooling More than it Shares”.

You can also read my previous work on GERS on this blog behind the following links: 2013-142014-152015-162016-17, 2017-18, and 2018-19.

In many ways, this year’s GERS report marks the end of an era. It’s not that the report itself is going to change drastically or that we’ll finally reach the point of independence where we can stop moaning about how independence is impossible/necessary and that our fiscal position is fundamentally strong/weak and improving/declining compared to the rest of the UK (delete as per the report’s figures and your personal political position). It’s more that the Covid-19 crisis has completely changed the way that a state’s finances work. This year’s GERS report does include the initial measures implemented in response to Covid but only the initial responses up until the end of March. The full impact of this unprecedented fiscal year shall not be felt until the GERS 2020-2021 report next year.

We’ve entered a new era in which almost everything in government will be judged either as “Before Covid” (BC) or “After Covid” (AC). The assumptions that governed our economy have changed. Spending plans have changed. Priorities have changed.

But until then, this final GERS report of the BC era largely just repeats the arguments already well rehearsed in previous years.

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The Road to Independence Part One – A Democratic Event

“There is always a choice…Or, perhaps, an alternative. You see, I believe in freedom, Mr Lipwig. Not many people do, although they will of course protest otherwise. And no practical definition of freedom would be complete without the freedom to take the consequences. Indeed, it is the freedom upon which all others are based.” – Havelock Vetinari, Going Postal.

You would have thought that Lockdown would have opened up more time for me to look after my blog but instead Common Weal dove headlong into its busiest session of policy-making we’ve ever seen. Between pushing for more effective Covid strategy, analysing the impact of the pandemic on the Scottish economy and launching our post-Covid reconstruction plan I’ve been writing everywhere BUT here.

But most of that has now been completed and I’m currently on holiday which means that instead of writing about politics for work I now get a little time to write about politics for FUN!

Over the next few blog posts I intend to lay out what I see as the main strategic block on the development of the Scottish Independence campaign. Namely, a focus on developing “mandates” for another Scottish independence referendum rather than working out how to actually get one, where to go if one doesn’t happen and what to do after one happens.

This kind of thinking is long overdue but in the absence of it coming from the Scottish Government I’d like to offer my own thoughts and analysis to and for the sake of the independence movement.

190504 Sky Blue Saltires

Substantial parts of this series will be drawn from Common Weal’s strategy for gaining independence Within Our Grasp which you can read here.

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The Ever Molding Mandate

“To discover strategy is to fulfill mandate” – Sunday Adelaja

On Sunday Politics Scotland this morning, the new Secretary of State for Scotland, Alister Jack shifted the goalposts again. The 2014 independence referendum has now been declared a “once in a lifetime” event and that even a pro-independence majority in the 2021 Scottish elections or even an outright SNP majority in those elections would be insufficient grounds for him to grant Scotland his permission to self-determine our form of government.

He went even further than this extremist position by stating categorically that he believed that it would be “absolutely unacceptable” for Scotland to hold any such referendum at a time of its choosing and under our own terms – effectively attempting to apply a veto to the Referendums Bill passed by the Scottish Parliament recently.

I think we should have a look at this Tory attempt to stifle Scottish Democracy.

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We Need To Talk About: GERS (2018-19 Edition)

“Fact be virtuous, or vicious, as Fortune pleaseth” – Thomas Hobbes

It’s that time again! The annual GERS report has been released and interested parties continue to analyse, pick apart and spin the numbers as required. And my now annual tradition of diving into the numbers continues with another installment.

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You can read my coverage of GERS 2013-14, 2014-15, 2015-16, 2016-17 and 2017-18 behind those links.

You can read the report and download all of the data tables for this year’s report here.

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The Devolving Union

“Power does not corrupt. Fear corrupts… perhaps the fear of a loss of power.”  – John Steinbeck

Theresa May, in one of her last acts of power before abdicating as PM and turning over to either Boris Johnson or (perhaps) Jeremy Hunt has made a surprise announcement of a trip to Scotland to launch a “review of devolution” in the UK by Lord Dunlop – who was Head of Research within the Conservative Party during the Thatcher era and worked with David Cameron to formulate the UK Government’s strategy against the 2014 independence campaign.

Details of the review will be published on Friday but the early press release doing the rounds today has said that it will not “review” powers already devolved to the Scottish parliament and other administrations but will instead look at reserved areas to determine if they are still functioning optimally in the face of the changing politics of the UK and the last few rounds of devolution since the 2014 independence referendum.

This story comes in the same week that the Scottish Conservatives and Scottish Lib Dems are having an almighty temper tantrum at the thought of the Scottish Government running a round of Citizens’ Assemblies on various issues including the topic of independence. Elected MSPs have even been encouraging a boycott of these Assemblies by Unionist supporters, seemingly not quite understanding that those who abstain from democracy lose the right to complain about the results of it when it happens without their input.

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Source: Unsplash

I won’t “empty chair” democracy. I won’t be disengaging from this devolution review but will instead offer some thoughts on it and speculate about what it might discover if it chooses to look. Continue reading