Wednesday, 11 September 2013
The Electoral Reform Society Scotland (ERS Scotland) has just published a report, “Democracy Max: an Inquiry into the Future of Scottish Democracy”. The report follows a year long process of discussion and deliberation which set out to explore a vision for a good Scottish democracy. It started with the premise that politics is too important to be left to the politicians. I was involved with the second phase of the process as a participant in the round table discussions which explored issues in a little more depth, chairing the third of the round tables and co-authoring that section of the report.
This short post does not set out the findings of the report in any detail, nor does it represent the views of ERS Scotland. These are simply personal observations on some of the broad themes.
Increasingly, it seems, people are not interested in politics. And if they are not interested in politics per se, they are even less interested in its dullard, techy, room-mate political process.
Try and run a vox pop on deliberative democratic techniques, or the case for a written constitution, and you’d have a hard job keeping the participants awake long enough to get a response. In that context ERS Scotland’s Democracy Max initiative could be seen as an anoraky exercise in constitutional navel gazing.
I disagree. Democracy Max asks a question of fundamental principle; not what party of government do we want, or even what powers we want, but what kind of democracy do we want?
And people do care about that.
People may not be interested in political process but they are interested in power. They know when they are denied it. They know when decisions are taken, not in their interests, but in the interests of powerful lobby groups, or political parties themselves. They know when politicians act in bad faith.
The clichés of, “They’re all as bad each other”, or “They’re all in it for themselves”, may do our parliamentarians a disservice, but those sentiments exist because of a real and deep dissatisfaction with modern politics. It cannot be wished away as ignorance, or railing against authority for its own sake. Traditional representative democracy is faced with falling confidence, and without the confidence of the people it will fail.
In Scotland the forthcoming independence referendum is an opportunity to rethink how our democracy works. To re-imagine how power is exercised. Sadly to date the debate has ploughed a depressingly narrow furrow, with parties bickering over where to draw the line on powers and economic shroud waving.
Is this really the best we can do? Can we not take this opportunity to introduce some more radical thought to the question of how political power could be shared and exercised more equitably and with greater integrity? Are we really saying political evolution stops here, with the shuffling of powers from one established political class to another? If so, how sad, how complacent and how limited is our vision of the future, and how little faith we must have in ourselves.
No one is suggesting that we take a hatchet to the central concept of parliamentary democracy. There is much in the political life of Scotland and the UK to applaud and to be thankful for, but we have been depressingly reluctant to open our eyes and minds that little bit wider.
There is ample precedent internationally if we care to look and to listen: citizen’s assemblies where members are selected by lot; further devolution of power to local communities who control the budget for their public services; a genuine belief in the concept of virtuous leadership - these are not ridiculous notions. They exist and work in the real, wider world
Certainly alternative models are not perfect. Neither are they a replacement for electoral politics. But they can complement, scrutinise and “round out” representative democracy, making it more diverse, more open and less susceptible to atrophy and self-interest. Any alternative systems will have drawbacks and problems and there will certainly be failures along the way. But frankly traditional policy making has produced some catastrophically awful results, yet we still keep putting our money in the slot and taking the gamble.
The Democracy max report does not pretend to offer fully thought out solutions to all of democracy’s woes. Neither should it. Far too much government is about a handful of interested, well- meaning people with a bit of expertise shutting themselves in a room and doing the policy making equivalent of the Disney Fairy Godmother’s “Bibbidi Bobbidi Boo”. Many proposals in the report are embryonic and seek simply to open up a dialogue. Democracy Max is just one way of encouraging our political elites to demonstrate their willingness to talk, to listen and to live up to the rhetoric of a desire to introduce a new kind of politics.
Change is needed, but it will not happen of its own accord. I hope this inquiry will be an important early step in challenging the political system to deliver on the high hopes that voters still hold for democracy in Scotland.