Willie Sullivan: It's time we acted as if we own the place, and here's how we can do it

Director of the Electoral Reform Society Scotland Willie Sullivan says local democracy urgently needs a boost

HERE'S a fact for you: a quarter of Scots in a recent BMG poll for the Electoral Reform Society said they would rather finish the ironing than go and vote in a council election. 

While our commitment to neat clothing is commendable, disregard for local democracy is at once frightening and understandable. Why is it that local democracy – close to where we live, the communities, the towns and villages that we think of as 'our' places – seems in even worse democratic nick than a faltering British state?  

This blog is about local democracy in Scotland right now. That it is full of quotations and the wisdom of people from other times is because it feels like we need to call on all the ingenuity and smartness we can get our hands on at the moment.

Whatever we thought democracy was – from voting and representation to free markets, solidarity, or trust in government – our understandings now seem grossly insufficient to deal with a time of growing inequality, populist shocks, anger, resentment, and information so free its meaning is as diffuse as fresh air. 

Our system of democracy was probably never as good as we were told it was. Locally it has become too distant from our home towns and too rigid and too 'system like' to feel human enough. 

Regardless of that, if we believe in the ideal of 'government of the people, by the people, for the people' it is clearly a crucial moment to remake it in a new and better form. This is OK, and perhaps that is part of the resilience of democratic systems - that they are fluid enough to be remade again and again.

Our system of democracy was probably never as good as we were told it was. Locally it has become too distant from our home towns and too rigid and too 'system like' to feel human enough. 

But we must be careful not to fall into the 'confidence trap' and believe democracies’ resilience up until now is wholly a feature of the system. It is not, and if we want to protect ourselves against, at worst, demagoguery and despotism and, at best, apathy and alienation (these things may well be connected), we need to do something about it.

'Prefiguration' is the sort of word Ed Miliband might have used. The meaning is sharper than its syllables suggest: it means that if people start to behave as if they live in the society they want to be part of, then it is more likely to come about. 

Ghandi captured the idea more succinctly when he said: "Be the change you wish to see in the world." Or as Alasdair Gray said to Scots: "Work as if you were living in the early days of a better nation."  

The ERS is part of modest intervention to create several small but significant acts that might snowball into something ambitious enough to save and remake Scottish democracy. 

Along with many others we have launched a campaign that is encouraging Scots to 'Act as if they Own the Place': to organise a gathering where, for a short time, they can imagine what it would feel like and what they would do if they ran their own town, village, community. And then to think about how they might make these imaginings more real.

Ghandi captured the idea more succinctly when he said: "Be the change you wish to see in the world." Or as Alasdair Gray said to Scots: "Work as if you were living in the early days of a better nation."  

Simone Weil said that "imagination is always the fabric of social life and the dynamic of history". We are offering help to any community that wants to run an 'Act as if Council'.

There are seven planned already for early next year, all over Scotland – from Inverness to Dumfries. You could even start to 'act as if you own the place' yourself. Let us know if we can help.

And watch this space – we could be in the early days of a better nation.

Picture courtesy of Quinn Dombrowski

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Wed, 12/14/2016 - 19:53

I attended the launch of this campaign but have seen little more about it since.
I wrote what I thought was a good letter, if a little long, to the Herald and copied it to several Argyll & Bute local papers. It was shortened in the Herald and printed if full in more than one local. I contacted Mike Russell MSP and had a positive response. I copy my take on it below.

I live in Argyll & Bute which is a prime example of a dysfunctional local authority and tonight I attended the launch of a new campaign to do something about it. The main speakers were Lesley Riddoch and Robin McAlpine at a meeting in the Kinning Park Centre in Glasgow. The location was symbolic as it is a rundown building that was saved for the community by direct action by local people some years ago in the face of intended closure. We, the people, all too often have to put up with what is a top down system of what is laughingly called “local” government; we have little or no say in what is done on our behalf. We vote for councillors that have little or no power to change anything in the face of decisions mostly made by officials.

In recent times we had a refurbishment of central Helensburgh. This took two years to deliver and during its course I spoke to several of the elected councillors about aspects of what was going on; they had as much idea of what the plans were as I had. The life blood of the town, the esplanade, was ripped up and closed for 18 months, busy junctions were changed from 2 lane to one causing traffic mayhem that still continues long after completion of the works. The numbers of paid managers increases year on year but every request for action is refused by these officials as impossible due to funding or deferred indefinitely for the same reason. We cannot get bins, where there are none, in many of our streets; we cannot get pavements, where there are none, on busy bus routes; the skating pond that cost a lot of money some years ago is now a swamp through lack of maintenance. Speak to the councillors and they are just as helpless as we are. All decisions are taken by a small clique, based in Lochgilphead. This group have management control of one of the largest local authorities in Europe, stretching from Helensburgh on the Clyde coast across Loch Long, Loch Fyne down to Campbelltown and up through the inner Hebrides to Coll & Tiree. While Argyll & Bute is an extreme case almost every council of the 32 in Scotland is in a similar position.

These are clear symptoms of a system that is broken. We need smaller councils with volunteer councillors rather than duplicated armies of paid managers and career politicians running the show. We need a “local” council in Helensburgh that is responsible for what goes on in our area. There are numerous other places within Argyll & Bute that have equally valid claims. Why do Campbelltown, Dunoon, Oban and the islands not have separate councils that know what is going on in their area rather than the one size fits all approach where nobody has any idea.

There is no need to duplicate all of the bureaucracy that we presently have; I believe this is where we are going wrong. We employ these officials and managers and in the end they tell the elected councillors what can and cannot be done. Let the officials do the sums and the administration and let the councillors make the decisions. We do not need full time councillors, each representing huge areas and very many people. There are lots of local volunteers that would work for their own community unpaid, on a part time basis. Yes we would need many more of them but their duties would be far less onerous and the cost would not break the bank.

Let us hope that we can start a real campaign to reclaim decision making for local people. They know what is wanted in their area and let them face up to the real challenges of getting the best results based on need

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