Robin McAlpine: If Scotland doesn't share power more evenly, we may come to regret it

CommonSpace columnist and Common Weal director Robin McAlpine says a radical reform of democracy could be one of the most important things Scotland ever does

OF all the policy proposals Common Weal is campaigning for just now – a better approach to housing, a Scottish National Investment Bank, a universal wraparound public childcare system, a properly implemented Scottish currency and so on – there are only two that I would consider as being actually radical.

One is the Citizens' Income. And the other is participatory democracy. And of them all, I increasingly think that the participatory democracy proposals may be the most important.

The reason for this is that inequality is, globally, driving us towards a kind of politics which is about angry reactions to senses of personal injustice. And while economic inequality is at the heart of this drive (and social equality for many marginalised groups), in fact I suspect that inequality of power is possibly what is having the most immediate effect.

Inequality is, globally, driving us towards a kind of politics which is about angry reactions to senses of personal injustice.

In their seminal work The Spirit Level, Richard Wilkinson and Kate Pickett showed that the impacts of economic inequality are at least as much psychological as material. It's the sense of the injustice of being left behind which does much of the worst damage.

Where I don't think we've had enough public discussion is about power inequality. The sense of being 'left behind' is clearly important to the election of Trump or the vote for Brexit. But so is the sense of being a pawn in someone else's chess game.

It's the sense that the things that happen to us are not the things we want to happen to us that many people express when they express anger at the existing political order.

I have only personal experience and anecdotal evidence for this but my feeling is that for most people the factor which has made them most angry about the 2008 financial crisis isn't as much the economic impact it had on them directly as it was a sense that there are simply two separate classes of people.

One group of people is always – always – regrettably expendable. Its interests and wellbeing are not a priority. Another group is never expendable. Its interests are the state's interests, its wellbeing synonymous with the wellbeing of the nation.

While economic inequality is at the heart of this drive (and social equality for many marginalised groups), in fact I suspect that inequality of power is possibly what is having the most immediate effect.

That second group (bankers, arms dealers, corporations, large landowners) seems to have the power to bend the will of government to its own interests. It seems to sail past nail-home cases of fraud and illegality. It's not that it's too big too fail, it's that it's too powerful to fail.

So while the left usually uses an analogy of a hungry person watching someone else feasting to describe inequality, I think that often its more like two people soaked by the rain but only one gets taken inside, given a hot shower, dry clothes – and that this is paid for by the one left outside.

We have come, sadly, to see economic inequality as normal. But we still struggle when, for example, prime ministers intervene to close down criminal inquiries into corrupt arms deals because the corruption is being carried out by powerful people.

In an era that does not believe in equality from the economy, we still do broadly believe in equality before the law and to a lesser degree, equality in the eyes of democracy.

Frankly, that thin veneer of legal and democratic equality is the ethos of 'justice and order' which holds our public realm together. Without it, well, it's everyone for themselves. Stock up on shotguns, people.

Where I don't think we've had enough public discussion is about power inequality. The sense of being 'left behind' is clearly important to the election of Trump or the vote for Brexit. But so is the sense of being a pawn in someone else's chess game.

But that veneer has been getting thinner and thinner. It has taken some more minor dents like the MPs expenses scandal ('the laws don't apply to them!') but has been substantially worn away by the blatant untruths which were used to manipulate us into the Iraq war, the inexplicable unwillingness to hold anyone in the banking sector properly accountable for their crimes and so on.

And frankly, if a powerful elite can rig LIBOR to the world's detriment with barely a slap on the wrist, why should anyone else declare their income from a cash job, or return their library book on time, or not put a brick through the window of some minority group they want to blame?

Of late we've had a bit of a problem in Scotland accepting that this applies to us, too. The independence movement is a little too quick to blame 'Westminster' as the only place where this abuse of power takes place.

I gave evidence to a committee of the Scottish Parliament which spent much of the session questioning why there should be any transparency over commercial lobbying in Scotland because we're Scottish and that kind of stuff doesn't happen here.

Except it does. And in a very important article by my colleague Ben Wray, we can see exactly how it is distorting public policy today, in the Scotland we have now.

A Citizens’ Assembly would create a kind of 'house of not lords' – a random selection of Scottish citizens to serve their nation by scrutinising the work of parliament and asking some of the difficult questions politicians sometimes dodge.

The independence movement is absolutely right to celebrate the fact that we have taken the same kind of sentiment that has led to Brexit and Trump but have instead directed it in a positive, inclusive direction.

But this is not inevitable. If we end up rushing into a premature referendum and lose it, if there is no remaining focus for the anger at power inequality in Scotland, an angry, reactionary politics is perfectly possible.

We can prevent this risk – but it means taking serious steps to create more equality of power across Scotland. The reform of local democracy is crucial. And through a broad process of engagement, Common Weal has produced a whole list of new approaches which could represent a revolution in our democracy in Scotland.

Others such as Nesta have done important work on digital democracy and in academia there are initiatives like the Citizen Participation Network.

But I particularly want to highlight the report we launched last week on a Citizens' Assembly. In effect, this would create a kind of 'house of not lords' – a random selection of Scottish citizens to serve their nation by scrutinising the work of parliament and asking some of the difficult questions politicians sometimes dodge.

It would be a second chamber to the Scottish Parliament and would have the power to scrutinise legislation and call for changes and to hold inquiries and reviews into government's actions and the big public issues of the day.

It would be a second chamber to the Scottish Parliament and would have the power to scrutinise legislation and call for changes and to hold inquiries and reviews into government's actions and the big public issues of the day.

So for example, it is of some concern to me that neither the Scottish Government nor the Scottish Parliament seems the slightest inclined to hold a proper inquiry into the scandal that has been the PFI/PPP regime in Scotland. Clearly, dodgy things happened – but it's like too many people don't want anyone to know what or why.

Well, I think I can say with some confidence that the day after Edinburgh's schools started falling down, a Citizens' Assembly would have initiated a major national inquiry, whether senior civil servants, Edinburgh financiers or government ministers wanted it or not.

You might think twice about some of your more egregious acts against the public interest if you were a tax-dodging corporation or law-breaking banker and if you didn't assume that the political classes would pretty well always have your back.

It would feel like power was being more evenly spread. It would just feel less like there were two categories in society – insiders and outsiders (with you never being the insider...). It would take away the sense of always being 'done to', never getting to decide.

You might think twice about some of your more egregious acts against the public interest if you were a tax-dodging corporation or law-breaking banker and if you didn't assume that the political classes would pretty well always have your back.

We've been working with the wonderful Fire Station Creative in Dunfermline who have an exhibition on just now promoting a 'Citizen Spire', a landmark building to celebrate citizenship in Scotland.

We propose that the bottom floor should be the home of the Citizens' Assembly. I'd like to make it an enjoyable place that citizens actually want to visit, that feels like 'their place'. I'd love to see it set in a big, beautiful national garden like the one Jim McColl has been campaigning for.

(No, not that Jim McColl – my personal hero the Beechgrove Jim McColl...)

I'd like to see it with brilliant transport connections to all of Scotland. I think a permanent festival site for music and cultural events with cabins that people could rent and stay in would make great sense in Scotland (I'm getting way too old for tents in muddy fields...). It would be a place for and by citizens – entirely for themselves and without a single advert for a bank.

I've been watching the really very good BBC Scotland series 'Growing Up Scottish'. It's been reminding me just how much our expectations of the public realm have changed over the last century.

It would just feel less like there were two categories in society – insiders and outsiders (with you never being the insider...). It would take away the sense of always being 'done to', never getting to decide.

We've reached the moment for the next big change. The British Empire's fundamental belief in a ruling class destined to prevent the lower orders from making mistakes remains a defining aspect of British life to this day – and Scotland is by no means immune.

In Scotland, as in the rest of the developed world, we can share power more equally. Or we can keep power far away from ordinary people and they will get angrier and angrier about it.

So if we do only one radical thing in Scotland, let's make it the reform of our democracy. It really could be the most important thing we do.

Picture courtesy of Robin McAlpine

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Comments

peterabell

Thu, 03/09/2017 - 21:03

Being independent is our children's responsibility. Becoming independent is ours. The idea of devolving power FROM the Scottish Parliament has great appeal. But right now we have to be more concerned with securing powers FOR the Scottish Parliament.

We can't be expected to have a serious discussion about our Parliament distributing power when even the limited powers that it has are under threat.

Justme

Fri, 03/10/2017 - 11:46

Talking about there being an angry reaction to a No vote at the next independence referendum, sounds too much like a threat to me. I know you don't mean it that way, but as you correctly said, it's all about perception.

DaveGorman

Sun, 03/12/2017 - 15:31

I'm a liberal and a strong remain voter for both the UK and EU. I find the independence case to be built on fiscal nonsense and economic fantasy.

That said, move beyond independence and I agree on many proposals that Robin writes about- I just wish so many were not tagged to the ' ignore all the downsides, pretend there are only upsides ' tendencies of independence supporters.

My thoughts on the principles for a liberal state here:

http://liberalismfive.co.uk/?p=83

See also thoughts on basic income and pay ratios at the same blog.

It's a pity constitutional issues look likely to keep us distracted from what are much more important 'basic structures of society' questions

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