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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