Closer? Building a Scottish democracy that works

In the latest paper (re) making the case for independence, ‘Renewing Democracy through Independence’, the First Minister argues that there is a democratic deficit in which: “Westminster retains ultimate power — even on devolved matters — and over recent years, as this paper shows, the UK Government has acted to override decisions of the Scottish Parliament and claw back powers in devolved areas.”

It is not just that Britain is preventing a poll on independence, it is preventing the agreed functioning of devolution. The British State’s centralising powers and tendencies are not to do with individual players and actors they are to do with the nature of the state. As Nicola Sturgeon outlines:

“It has done so despite having the support of a relatively small proportion of the electorate in Scotland. The current governing party at Westminster, for example, has just six MPs representing Scotland and has not won an election in Scotland for almost 70 years.”

But if this problem and the language around it sound dry and constitutional it is not. As Darren McGarvey puts it in the Social Distance Between Us: “A ravine cuts though Britain, partitioning the powerful from the powerless, the vocal from the voiceless, the fortunate from those too often forgotten. This distance dictates how we identify and relate to society’s biggest issues — from homelessness and poverty to policing and overrun prisons — ultimately depending on how — and whether, we strive to resolve them.”

This ‘social distance between us’ is a mirror of the ‘national distance between us’ — ‘London Rule’ and is part of a wider democratic crisis in society in which the people with power are the monied and propertied class and the corporate elites. This is true everywhere, but in Britain it’s amplified and magnified by remnant feudalism and rampant offshore capitalism.

As the paper ‘Renewing Democracy through Independence’, puts it:

“The House of Lords, the upper house of the UK Parliament, is not elected by the people for whom it passes laws. As of May 2022, there are 764 members of the House of Lords. 650 are life peers, 89 are hereditary peers and 26 are Bishops of the Church of England.39 Just under 29
per cent of its members are women.40 The House of Lords is one of the largest legislative bodies in the world and an outlier in terms of size, hereditary element and unelected composition.41 And as has been observed, “there are still no enforceable constraints on how many peers a Prime Minister can appoint to the second chamber of the UK legislature”.

There are more unelected people making laws in Westminster than elected ones

In 2013–15 we explored some alternative options to this state of affairs in a series of print magazines called ‘Closer’. How could independence be an opportunity to bring democracy closer to people — but also an opportunity to be a first step towards further deeper democracy. It followed on from the work of Finnish futures scholar Vuokko Jarva about a form of ‘Closer’ democracy that is more peer-to-peer more hands on and involved.

I was trying and we’ll continue to try ask: ‘What changes will help transform Scottish society when we get the powers to control our own affairs? How can we get closer to democracy, closer to land, closer to nature, closer to a way of living that isn’t so distorted by the economics of exploitation?’

In that era, in that moment, we asked with various writers, how to overcome the gender gap that excludes women on multiple levels from society; how the arts and film and broadcast industries which currently exclude people could change to become a huge opportunity for telling ourselves a different story, one of innovation and cultural expectation? How can we use independence as a way to bring a whole generation of young people — who have been betrayed on multiple levels — into democracy and empowerment? How can we repair a local democracy that has been ‘gradually been dismantled over the last 50 years’ from over 400 elected local governments in 1946 to 32 today?

If we take McGarvey’s challenge seriously though, this doesn’t just mean that those closest to, and afflicted by a social problem should be at the heart of consultation and decision-making about solving it. That should be expanded and deepened as a political challenge, acknowledging the forces that would mitigate against it and that those who have suffered the hardest often have no sense of agency left. It is a more difficult challenge to ’empower’ people who have been disenfranchised, and indeed some challenge whether you can ’empwoer’ another person or community at all.

So when we talk about political participation we need also to talk about social inclusion, social justice and basic economic equality before anything else. We need to be able to talk about solidarity and rebuilding a society broken and disfigured by poverty. That’s the real prize of an independent country, a society we want to be part of and that we assume everyone and anyone has a role in: all of us first. That’s a prize worth winning and it’s one within our grasp.

There are examples around the world of institutions and structures that maximise inclusion and participation, instead of exclusion and distance.

From Port Allegre to PARECON (participatory economics), from Mondragon to Erik Olin Wright’s ’empowered participatory governance’ (EPG), from Swiss Cantons to citizen’s initiatives, the practice and theory of a better functioning democracy is clear. The opportunity of moving from being loyal British subjects, to active citizens of Scotland is ahead of us, but we need to do much more than change the flags.

Kali Akuno

The are examples everywhere. One of the most recent, most radical and most inspiring is in Jackson, Mississippi. Here Kali Akuno describes the grassroots mobilisation that launched the young black attorney Chokwe Antar Lumumba to be elected mayor of Jackson, Mississippi, with 93 per cent of the vote in 2017:

“The Jackson Plan is an initiative to apply many of the best practices in the promotion of participatory democracy, solidarity economics and sustainable development, and combine them with progressive community organising and electoral politics.

The plan has three fundamental components designed to build a mass base with political clarity, organisational capacity and material self-sufficiency.”

These are:

These are inspiring examples, but rather than being utopian, marginal or operating in wealthy and privileged communities, the Jackson rising operates in the some of the most poorest and marginalised communities, and is succeeding.

Of course the real issue about exclusion in all this is basic but overwhelming economic inequality. The daily everyday experience of unemployment, low wages, zero hours contracts and precarity have now been amplified by a massive attack on the poorest and most vulnerable people by the Conservative’s hugely aggressive welfare reform programme.

This week on Question Time Labour’s Chris Bryant explained how out of touch and socially distanced politicians are. He said: “The thing that shamed me more than anything else was reading that we now have NHS hospitals that are running foodbanks for their staff. Because their staff aren’t able to make ends meet on the salaries they receive.”

Few of us will be shocked to hear this.

And yet we have the lineup of Conservative ‘hopefuls’ threatening tax-cuts and the front-runner Rishi Sunak saying he would ‘Run the country like Margaret Thatcher’. As the Daily Record had it: ‘Tories plan tax cuts as kids go hungry’.

You may say that these radical democratic experiments are a million miles away from the safe and centrist path being laid out before us, and you’d be absolutely right. But the scale of socio-ecological crisis we are in the middle of requires us to think about alternatives that are not the usual bland and failed ones. If we are to have any hope of bridging the ‘ravine that partitions the powerful from the powerless, the vocal from the voiceless’ we must be far more imaginative and braver than before.

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