Politics, Parliament and Power: The case for a renewal of Scottish democracy

stephen-maxwellThis article is based on the Scottish Council for Voluntary Organisation’s (SCVO) Stephen Maxwell Memorial Lecture which was delivered by Andy Wightman MSP on the 8th December 2016.

Thank you for the invitation to deliver the Stephen Maxwell Memorial Lecture. I am both honoured and delighted to have been asked to share my thoughts with you.

My own political awakening took place when I was a student at Aberdeen University in the 1980s. I subscribed to the political magazine, Radical Scotland, which six times a year, delivered a varied diet of left-wing politics, Scottish culture and political theory to a young and inquiring mind.

It was within its covers that I first discovered the writings of Stephen Maxwell (pictured right).

Since the establishment of the Scottish Parliament, I was in dialogue with Stephen on a range of matters. For example, I found an email exchange from 2004 covering Stephen’s effort in the Community Empowerment Working Group of the Social Inclusion Network, which led to robust recommendations for asset-based development and the transfer of assets from public authorities to communities.

Soon afterwards, he reported that nothing had come of this, but that the then Scottish Executive had agreed to develop Agreed Standards for Community Engagement with Partnerships!

As he concluded in his email: “It was a disappointing outcome”.

It is thus a source of some satisfaction that 13 years later I sat last week in the Local Government and Communities Committee scrutinising the Statutory Instruments that will provide communities with legal rights to take on the ownership of land and property held by public bodies.

This illustrates the far-sightedness of much of Stephen’s thinking and the rather sober realisation that it often takes between 10 and 20 years for even modest social reforms to take root.

My last correspondence with Stephen was in relation to policy proposals being adopted by the SNP conference to gain control over the Crown Estate. Again these are efforts that now are paying off as the management (if not the revenues) of the Crown Estate are now devolved to the Scottish Parliament.

So it is with genuine pleasure that I find myself now in Parliament contributing in a modest way to the delivery of some of the issues that Stephen cared about so passionately.

The structure of my lecture will provide some personal reflections on my own political journey, consider the state of democracy in Scotland today, say something of the continuing struggle to hold political and corporate power to account and conclude with some thoughts about this Parliamentary term and some recommendations for strengthening and revitalising democracy.

Thinking back on my own experience as a student at the University in Aberdeen, it was during studies for a forestry degree that I began to take an interest in the land question.

At the root of the land question is the same question that lies at the root of all injustice – an imbalance in power relations.

Some of you may remember the controversy that raged in the 1980s over commercial afforestation of the deep peatlands of Caithness and Sutherland. This was driven by tax breaks for wealthy people such as Terry Wogan and Dame Shirley Porter. Whilst I was as concerned about the nature conservation arguments as others, it was the politics of the situation that really caught my attention.

One day, the Chief Executive of the company responsible for this activity gave a lecture. Afterwards I asked why the Government was giving millions of pounds in tax breaks to wealthy people in London to plant trees in the far north of Scotland? Why, I remember asking, did the Government not use the money it was foregoing in tax receipts to provide grants, or even loans to the farmers and landowners who owned the land in Caithness so that they could plant the trees?

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I don’t recall his answer but afterwards, my professor took me aside and suggested it was not a good idea to ask such political questions.

From that moment on I decided that asking such questions was a splendid idea and, the more it made folk uncomfortable, the more I enjoyed it and in a sense, that is all I have been doing ever since.

At the root of the land question is the same question that lies at the root of all injustice – an imbalance in power relations.

And it is the question that those on the progressive wing of politics forever engage with.

Tony Benn was famous for asking five questions of those who claimed to enjoy a position of power:

What power have you got?

Where did you get it from?

In whose interests do you use it?

To whom are you accountable?

How do we get rid of you?

Benn would explain that: “Anyone who cannot answer the last of those questions does not live in a democratic system.”

Only democracy gives us that right”, he would continue. “That is why no one with power likes democracy. And that is why every generation must struggle to win it and keep it – including you and me, here and now”.

This then is the theme of my remarks tonight.

Before exploring this further I want to reflect on the broader political context within which we currently find ourselves.

Across the world, western Liberal democracies are currently being challenged by the rise of populist and nationalist movements.

This is thus an important time to consider questions of governance. Political developments here and abroad illustrate what, on the surface, it appears decisions are made in a democratic fashion, but on closer inspection, systematic structural weaknesses in our democracy become exposed.

To the extent that the reasons for the EU referendum result and the election of Donald Trump lie with a growing sense of alienation, disempowerment and revolt at the established order, the solution must include strengthening, deepening and extending democracy so that people are engaged as agents of change in the political and economic decisions that shape their lives.

In the US, more votes were cast for Hilary Clinton to be President than for Donald Trump, yet Trump won. The right to vote, hard won over centuries, is actively compromised in many US states by discriminatory laws and practices.

But it is here in UK that the fragility of our democracy is increasingly visible.

The decision in the Referendum to leave the EU exposed serious flaws in our democratic architecture.

I know that it is fashionable to say that, though I and others might have voted remain, that nevertheless we should respect the result of the Referendum.

Whilst I accept the result of the Referendum result, I personally do not accept the legitimacy of the Referendum. Legitimacy is a central part of trust in the political process and I am entitled to this view.

I do not accept its legitimacy for the simple reason that the legislation that allowed for it was ill-conceived, hasty, bereft of any informed analysis of the consequences of leaving and was utterly silent on what would happen next with a vote to leave the EU.

By not specifying the consequences, what role should there be for Parliament, the timetable, the means of determining the UK’s future relationship with the EU, the implications for the citizens of the UK, for EU citizens residing and working in the UK, and for NGO, business, universities and trades unions – we are thus now left in a position of extreme uncertainty with a fractious and divided electorate.

Meanwhile in the USA, a campaign characterised by lies and racism has led to a demagogue being elected as President of the USA.

To the extent that the reasons for the EU referendum result and the election of Donald Trump lie with a growing sense of alienation, disempowerment and revolt at the established order, the solution must include strengthening, deepening and extending democracy so that people are engaged as agents of change in the political and economic decisions that shape their lives.

In April 1972, in his famous Rectorial Address at Glasgow University, Jimmy Reid opened by claiming that: “Alienation is the precise and correctly applied word for describing the major social problem in Britain today. People feel alienated by society.

He continued: “Let me right at the outset define what I mean by alienation. it is the crib of men who feel themselves the victims of blind economic forces beyond their control. it is the frustration of ordinary people excluded from the processes of decision making. The feeling of despair and hopelessness that pervades people who feel with some justification that they have no real say in shaping or determining their own destinies.”

That insight is remarkably prescient.

In his address Reid was arguing for greater economic democracy, the ability of people to be agents of economic policy, rather than its components.

He also observed, however, that the concentration of power in the economic field was matched by the centralisation of decision making in politics.

The power of Parliament has undoubtedly been eroded over past decades with more and more authority being invested in the Executive. The power of local authorities has been and is being systematically undermined.”

Local Government is to be re-structured. What an opportunity, now would think, for decentralising as much power back to local communities. Instead the proposals are for centralising local government. It is once again a blueprint for bureaucracy, not democracy.”

He was talking of course of the proposals, then being debated in Parliament, that would form the basis of the Local Government Act, 1973 and the abolition of almost 200 local town councils right across Scotland.

But the point he was making remains as live an issue today.

If these proposals are implemented, in a few years when asked ‘where do you come from?’, I can reply: ‘The Western Region’. It even sounds like a hospital board.

So what might Jimmy Reid make of the state of democracy in Scotland today?

Democratic reform in Scotland is, on the face of it, an uplifting story culminating in the establishment of a devolved legislature in 1999.

But the UK as a whole is a shoddy, ill-considered and archaic entity that retains an unelected head of state and an unelected upper chamber.

Not until 1999 did the UK constitution begin to acknowledge the limitations of unitary state government in a country with three independent jurisdictions functioning within it.

Today there still remains no codified and written constitution, the consequences of which were laid out before us in embarrassing detail in the Supreme Court this week.

But democracy is very much more than institutions. It is fundamentally concerned with the active participation of citizens over decisions that affect their lives. It is about feeling empowered, in control, listened to, respected and valued.

The growth of state power over the 20th century and the exclusive focus on representative forms of elected governance has arguably not done a great deal to strengthen democracy.

And today we face a situation where levels of trust in the political system and in politicians are extremely low, dangerously low in fact.

In the Veracity Index published by IPSOS MORI this week, the percentage of people who trusted various professions to tell the truth was revealing.

Over 90% trusted nurses and doctors.

Over 70% trusted judges and the police.

Lawyers didn’t do so well at 52% but at the bottom of the pile were Government Ministers (20%) and politicians generally (15%).

My favourite result was that 52% trusted the ordinary woman or man in the street to tell the truth.

Finally, given that this is a poll, you should be aware that only 49% of people polled actually trusted the pollsters to tell the truth.

Why this should be so, continues to be the subject of great debate and whilst there are recent events that we can point to – such as the MPs expenses scandal and the financial crash – that have undermined trust, such calamities are not new.

My view is that this erosion of trust, this alienation that Jimmy Reid identified in 1972 and which appears to be just as prevalent today is, in part, at least due to an erosion in the status, capacity and agency of democratic institutions themselves, particularly at the local level.

One hundred years ago, following a General Election in Edinburgh, it was the tradition that a ceremony would be held at Waverley Station where newly-elected MPs would be sent off with a speech from the Provost, a pipe band perhaps and other symbols of respect for those elected to head to Westminster to sue for peace in the Sudan, secure the extension of the franchise, or promote bills to extend the London to Edinburgh railway line.

The MPs would subsequently have limited contact with their constituents for the simple reason that the vast majority of concerns that the good citizens of Edinburgh had would be dealt with by the Edinburgh Corporation. It would be to the City Chambers that people looked to for a resolution of disputes over the hours of opening of the Fruit Market, the state of the street-lighting or sanitation and the state of the schooling in the parishes.

The Corporation would, in addition have been responsible for raising most of its own finance through local taxes, fees and levies on, for example, the Fruit Market and Flesh Market.

That division of power and authority still exists today, of course, but the distinction in the public mind of who does what and under what authority has been blurred to the point where I would contend that people may well understand less about how they are governed than they did so a century ago.

A few weeks ago I saw a copy of an Edinburgh MPs newsletter. It contained a breakdown of casework and revealed that 88% of inquiries dealt with were within the competence of the Scottish Parliament, or the Council. Further fully 73% of all casework was in relation to Council services.

None of this 88% is the concern of a Member of the UK Parliament.

In a similar vein, I observed the activity of Edinburgh’s newly elected MPs on the first weekend back in Edinburgh after the 2015 General Election.

One was meeting constituents concerned about a housing development on the green belt. Another was meeting with residents campaigning against a planning application and yet another was visiting parents of secondary school children to discuss some matter of concern.

None of these issues are within the responsibility of MPs. None of them are even within the responsibilities of MSPs. They are all matters within the competence and jurisdiction of the City of Edinburgh Council.

If we are concerned to tackle disillusionment with the political process, with strengthening democratic engagement, overcoming alienation and curbing the excesses of populism we should, I believe ponder on what is happening here.

Local Government in Scotland has been systematically hollowed-out over the past few decades.

In Scotland we have 32 local authorities, yet in the Netherlands there are 408, Norway, has 428, Belgium 589 while in Germany there are over 11,000 councils at this lowest tier of governance.

The reforms of 1996 has bequeathed to us the most centralised and weakest system of local governance in the whole of Europe.

In Scotland we have 32 local authorities, yet in the Netherlands there are 408, Norway, has 428, Belgium 589 while in Germany there are over 11,000 councils at this lowest tier of governance.

And whilst there has been some amalgamation undertaken in these countries, there has been nothing like the stripping away, the hollowing out and the elimination of local governance that has taken place in Scotland. At the beginning of the 20th century, Scotland started out with over 1,100 councils at the lowest tier. A century later there are but 32.

As the McIntosh Commission noted in 1999: “It could be said that Scotland today simply does not have a system of local government in the sense in which many other countries still do. The 32 councils now existing are, in effect, what in other countries are called county councils or provinces”.

Elsewhere in Europe, by contrast state, regional and municipal power centres are strictly defined in written constitutions and where substantial autonomy exists, at the local level, it is accompanied by significant fiscal autonomy and freedom.

As the McIntosh Commission noted in 1999: “It could be said that Scotland today simply does not have a system of local government in the sense in which many other countries still do. The 32 councils now existing are, in effect, what in other countries are called county councils or provinces

The current Government’s Council Tax freeze, for example, would be illegal in Germany where under Article 28 of the Federal Constitution given it is prohibited to interference in the financial affairs of both the Lander and Municipalities.

In a Scotland with turnouts of 39% in the last local elections, we need to pay far greater heed to the perilous state of local governance.

In Iceland, by contrast, where turnout in its municipal election fell below 80% for the first time in the recorded history of voter turnout, there was a great deal of soul-searching and even academic inquiry as a consequence.

This also relates to the role that the voluntary sector plays since, arguably, the voluntary sector now finds itself delivering many of the services that would once have been the sole responsibility of local councils and which, across Europe, still remain the responsibility of local municipalities and kommunes.

On reflection this may be well and a good development, but I do not think we can confidently take that view without deeper inquiry.

This thus brings us to what appears to me to be the central cleavage in the debate on strengthening communities and democratic engagement.

This central cleavage relates to the meaning of the word ‘community’ and how decisions at a ‘community level’ are actually made.

In short, if community empowerment is the answer, what exactly is the question?

All sorts of associations such as churches, voluntary groups, and trades unions act as the locus for community action. Members of the Scottish Council of Voluntary Organisations are the embodiment of much of that action.

But I would contend that there is a difference – a big difference – between community empowerment (which is voluntary and partial) and local governance (which is statutory and universal).

Empowering communities, while strengthening and deepening democratic institutions are complementary, as are other important approaches such as introducing more participatory budgeting and greater community engagement.

Evidence was presented during the passage of the Community Empower Bill that these new powers would be taken up disproportionately by communities possessing agency, capacity and affluence.

Those communities that are most disadvantaged, that have most to gain from greater empowerment would at the same time miss out on these opportunities.

Reading the statutory instruments setting out the rules for asset transfer and participation requests, it is certainly very evident that a substantial effort is going to be required for communities to be aware of the existence of these powers, to understand how to use them, have the energy to incorporate themselves into the required entities, to follow the specified process, make an application and, then if successful, implement whatever the eventual outcome.

A community that needs action on local matters should not have to rely on voluntary effort that, in turn, requires it to be constituted within some form of corporate entity in order to make a statutory participation request to a local authority.

The powers that are required should be substantially and readily available through the democratic structures within the community.

Empowering communities, while strengthening and deepening democratic institutions are complementary, as are other important approaches such as introducing more participatory budgeting and greater community engagement.

Corporations have evolved quite sophisticated means of privileging themselves in gaining both the attention and the ear of politicians and their advisers.

Now I would like to turn to the role of corporate influence in our democracy.

As a new MSP I am surprised by the extent of lobbying that takes place. Perhaps I was naïve, but I now realise this is normal and perhaps to be expected. Some concerns over lobbying were addressed by the Lobbying (Scotland) Act, 2016, yet formal lobbying is but the tip of the iceberg.

Corporations have evolved quite sophisticated means of privileging themselves in gaining both the attention and the ear of politicians and their advisers.

Sometimes the prevalence of privilege is openly-spoken, but all too often missed. Like the occasion when in 2013 the then Rural Affairs Minister, Richard Lochhead addressed the centenary conference of the National Farmers Union of Scotland by making the startling admission that, for the past six years: “I have had the honour of being your representative in Government”.

Sometimes this is by simply promoting the narrative of jobs and the economy, without any thought as to what sort of jobs and what sort of economy.

The salmon farming industry provides one example. It is lauded by politicians for the role it pays in Scotland’s food exports, yet its environmental impact and reliance on wild fish often sourced from faraway places like Chile highlights a very big question over its sustainability.

The oil industry is another obvious example. With scientists clear that we need to leave around two-thirds of known oil reserves in the ground to prevent runaway global warming, many Scottish politicians continue to support this dirty industry when the real priority should be a rapid transition to a fossil-fuel free Scotland.

Sometimes the prevalence of privilege is openly-spoken, but all too often missed. Like the occasion when in 2013 the then Rural Affairs Minister, Richard Lochhead addressed the centenary conference of the National Farmers Union of Scotland by making the startling admission that, for the past six years: “I have had the honour of being your representative in Government”.

The last time I looked, Richard Lochhead MSP was the representative of the people of Moray, and as a Minister in the Scottish Government he also represented the interests of the people of Scotland.

This elite capture is all too prevalent in politics. And it has its roots in the easy conflation of the interests of the economy with the interests of business.

Behind all of this activity is a growing army of public affairs companies, some of which adopt ethical codes of practice which can include publishing a list of their clients. Others, such as Charlotte Street Partners, an alliance of big business, media and politics with former MSPs, Special Advisers and journalists all on the payroll, refuses to divulge such information.

In the globalised economy, these pressures are now more acute.

The Scotch Whisky Association is still challenging the Government in the Courts over minimum unit pricing. And yet, as Dr Alastair MacGilchrist, consultant liver specialist at the Royal Infirmary of Edinburgh observed, in Third Force News, at the beginning of November: “The two ways that you can influence price are by taxation or the idea of setting a threshold below which alcohol cannot be sold. Minimum unit pricing very selectively targets the heaviest drinkers because they are the ones who are drinking the very cheap alcohol; you couldn’t invent a better public health policy.”

And so why is the Association taking the Scottish Government back to the Supreme Court?

Because, I would contend the industry is now largely owned by multi-national alcohol companies whose interests lie more in dissuading other countries from pursuing such measures, rather than supporting a vital public health measure in their host country.

Corporate interests regularly sponsor events, receptions and dinners in and for the Parliament. Earlier this year, for example, I was invited to attend the Scottish Politician of the Year Awards. After discovering that each table costs over £2,000 and are paid for by businesses who then enjoy a few hours exclusive access to MSPs, I politely declined.

One sponsor at the awards ceremony this year was Edinburgh Airport Ltd who had a particularly interesting guest at its table.

Edinburgh Airport, like much of our formerly public infrastructure such as the Port of Leith is now in private hands. So when the Airport launched a public consultation on proposed changes in the use of its airspace to accommodate more flights, I pondered who would benefit from this expanded capacity within what is the public realm of this airspace.

A quick bit of research reveals Edinburgh Airport Ltd is owned by a company called Green Midco Ltd which, in turn, is owned by Green Topco Ltd, a company registered in the Cayman Islands. The public are not able to inspect the company registers of Grand Cayman, but it is understood that further links are to investment funds in both Luxembourg and New York.

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So when MSPs, MPs, regulators and planning authorities engage with the wide range of issues relating to the provision of aviation services at Edinburgh Airport, where exactly is the line between the public interest and the private gain, and can we even really know?

Behind all of this activity is a growing army of public affairs companies, some of which adopt ethical codes of practice which can include publishing a list of their clients. Others, such as Charlotte Street Partners, an alliance of big business, media and politics with former MSPs, Special Advisers and journalists all on the payroll, refuses to divulge such information. It is therefore difficult to monitor or audit any conflicts of interests that may arise in our political and public affairs.

These examples would provide no surprises to Stephen Maxwell who in his 1985 essay, Beyond Social Democracy, argued that: “today’s received social democratic orthodoxy [which] too easily accepts the centralisation of power even to the point of legitimising the corporate state; which supports a mixed economy even when the mix is increasingly one between centralised state and private corporation.

In beginning to draw matters to a close can I make the following points.

What is surprising on reading Stephen’s essay from over 30 years ago is just how relevant his political analysis remains today and how valid are his policy prescriptions, such as a programme of radical democracy and the radical decentralisation of power, the need for mutual and co-operative newspapers, and neighbourhood law centres.

These ideas were bold in 1985 and still remain bold today, 17 years after the establishment of the Scottish Parliament.

So how should we seek to renew, refresh and revitalise Scottish democracy, and in the process redistribute economic and political power.

The Scottish Parliament has the potential to be far bolder, far more imaginative and far more creative in its approach to a great many matters of import to Scotland. That is precisely why, after some considerable thought, I decided to stand for election in the first place.

Parliamentary work which has, I confess, taken me by surprise in its intensity, volume and complexity. As a consequence, I have now adopted three guiding principles for all my work: be organised, be focussed and be creative.

We are confronted with some very significant challenges. Just this week we were reminded of the stark reality of climate change with a shocking 98% decline in the population of kittiwakes on St Kilda, and the population now close to collapse because of a decline in their food source due to warming oceans.

The challenges we now face in moving to a low-carbon economy need to focus around heat, transport and agriculture, three areas where powerful vested interests have consistently conspired to resist any kind of radical transformation in how we plan for our communities and lead our lives.

So this Parliament must be bolder, not only on these issues, but also on a range of others such as the perennial imperative to reform local taxation. A cross-party commission recommended the end of Council Tax. The Scottish Government’s own adviser on poverty and inequality, Naomi Eisenstadt, told the First Minister that she needs to be bold on local tax reform, introduce a new system that is, in her words, “genuinely progressive” and to focus on the bottom 40% of the income distribution in order to effectively tackle income inequality.

Instead we still have the grubby, miserable and iniquitous Council Tax which even after recent Government changes will remain probably the most regressive tax in the UK where, according to analysis by Scottish Parliamentary Information Centre (SPICe), the bottom 10% of households by income will be paying around 9% of their equalised household disposable income in Council Tax, while the top 10% pay a mere 3%.

Nevertheless I am optimistic that a Parliament of minorities, with a five-year term, where over a third of MSPs are new, and to which new powers are accruing, can, if it puts its mind to it, rise and meet these challenges.

But it cannot do it on its own.

Over the past few months as an MSP, I have met a wider range of individuals and organisations than I have ever met before. And on such occasions one thought keeps recurring, which is reinforced by the turbulent times in which we appear to be living.

That thought is that many organisations outside Parliament need to be bolder.
The routine business of meeting health charities, business associations, campaign groups and professional bodies is always characterised by the offering up of detailed briefings and appeals for MSPs to take on board their key concerns or policies.

For example, I recently met a small health charity and asked them what was occupying their attention. To this I was told they were awaiting a new strategy from the Scottish Government.

Why wait, I asked. Why not draft the strategy yourselves?

Politics should not simply be about making demands of elected representatives, important though that is.

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In my view, organisations such as those represented here need to start – and I acknowledge some of you have been doing this for some time – scaling up the level of engagement by going beyond the policy papers and the briefings to actually drafting their own legislation, to engage in creative activism, subversive democracy, and transparency initiatives. Such a process would help unmask the corporate power that thrives within what is often a complacent process of public policy-making. There is a real need inject a bit more risk, danger, excitement and creative energy into this core element of democracy.

This leads me to some recommendations as to how we can deepen and strengthen democracy, hold power to account and create a new more local, engaging and relevant political debate.

My first suggestion is to establish a co-operative that will engage a network of trainers to deliver a series of modules and courses in creative activism, radical democracy, legislative expertise and para-parliamentary activity to communities, NGOs and others in order to empower them to engage and to pre-empt the conventional political processes of local and national governments and their legislatures.

We need a wiki-politics for Scotland.

My second suggestion is to do transform local democracy to create in Scotland an exemplary framework of democratic engagement, as close to the citizen as possible, with real economic, fiscal and political power exercised at the locality level. Again, although Stephen had much to say on this, throughout his life, it still remains substantial unfinished business.

My third suggestion is to deepen economic democracy by revitalising the mutual, co-operative and social enterprise sector: the sector that has and continues to deliver remarkable results, but which still remains in the shadows. And we should be bold here too. For example, there will be a Bill this Parliament to complete the devolution of forestry. Yet Scotland is currently missing its targets for forestry expansion. What role might there be for a Scottish Forestry Co-op that could engage hundreds of thousands of people in a substantial programme of reforestation? Energy is the other obvious area in which this model can and should be working, and there are current good examples of this.

My fourth suggestion is that however we move forward on local democracy, we need, just as Westminster and Holyrood have, a fiscal framework to govern the financial relations between Holyrood and local government which provides predictability and clarity around fiscal transfers and powers. We need to get beyond the trite politics of the Council Tax freeze, a policy promoted by national politicians in the past who had no power nor authority to deliver, but effectively could hold local government to ransom to implement it. This is a policy which, as I noted earlier, would be illegal in Germany.

My fifth suggestion is to extend transparency in all areas of public life.

To open up to free public inspection, for example, the registers of landownership and to create a public portal of information on all aspects of our land and environment so that there are no secrets anymore about the distribution of power and influence exercised over land ownership and use.

Going further, I would require all public officials to publish their tax returns, to open to public inspection all bank accounts with balances of over, say £100,000, and to free up data by, for example removing Crown Copyright from our national mapping agency.

The new economy will be built on information and data so we should, as far as possible, make it freely available to the citizen.

My final suggestion is one you can all take up immediately.

That is to engage with the recently established Commission on Parliamentary Reform. This is the first substantial review of the workings of the Parliament and of how it might better engage with the people of Scotland for whom it serves.

To conclude, there has been and there will continue to be a debate about Scotland’s constitutional future, a debate Stephen was engaged in for most of his life.

But there must also be a richer, more nuanced and more fundamental debate about governance, local democracy, power and equality.

As we await the repercussions of President Trump and the on-going process of EU exit negotiations, we must find the time to attend to the ecology of power and how we can, in our communities, ‘take back control’ as it were of the political and economic forces that have for too long been exercised in ways that disempower the citizen, entrench inequalities and diminish the lived experience of too many of our fellow citizens.

That is what Stephen Maxwell attended to during his life and why we owe such a debt of gratitude to the dedication he gave to these matters.

I am now privileged to be in a position to try and take forward these matters in my new role.

Comments (23)

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  1. picpac says:

    An excellent analysis and good proposals for change. We should be embarrassed to call our country (whether the UK or Scotland) a democracy. On a transatlantic note, Trump may turn out to be a disaster but no-one in their right mind should have wanted a Clinton presidency. It should also be noted that Clinton stole the primary from Sanders – so she should not even have been standing as a presidential candidate. Neither Clinton nor Trump secured more than around 25% of the votes. To that extent, neither would have democratic legitimacy. Not much different from the UK, of course, where, if I remember rightly, Blair won a landslide on 25% of the vote.
    Andy Wightman rightly compares the parlous state of effective representation and – more importantly – participation in decision-making in Britain to that in Germany and other European states. He could have mentioned that there are popular rights of initiative and referendum in all of Germany’s Laender – acquired primarily through the persistent efforts of Mehr Demokratie (More Democracy). He might also have mentioned the outstanding example of Switzerland, where the citizen is genuinely sovereign – and where the national government is seven people from four different political parties.

    1. c rober says:

      I have often wondered why if there is elections for Council , Holyrood , Westminster , and even EU representatives in that why have there also been like the American systems “propositions” on the ballot papers?

      This means actual involvement of the people on matters that directly affect them , then all I need to do is think of the Brexit result to prove why such a thing may well not be a good idea – thus is prevented.

      It could therefore supply legalising medical use of cannabis saving the NHS tens of millions and aid development of its use , the removal of the bbc tax or its reform to a true Scottish ownership , setting housing reform to the local level on major developments like social housing priorities and infrastructure first legislation and so on.

      If the SNP were so keen on Scottish or Local empowerment , on proving the post indy political situation of Scotland , then this is exactly what should be supplied – asap. But instead it is keen on more jobs for the boys , WM , Holyrood , Council , and now the suggested upper house , thus politics and agenda being driven and supplied by the people would prevent that from happening.

  2. Frank says:

    Interesting text but the entire asset transfer agenda (mentioned at the start) whereby in local government public assets are transferred over to community ownership is really problematic. Asset transfer was once described as the ‘big society’ by David Cameron and rebranded in Scotland as Community Empowerment. Yet, research from unison shows that in terms of local government it is driven by cost cutting and driving down terms and conditions especially for Council staff previously employed under local authority terms and conditions who now work in public services provided by ‘the community’. I was talking to a Council director who shall remain nameless who told me that every public building including services such after school clubs, social care services, lunch clubs for the elderly and adult education could be transferred to a development trust when the next round of cuts are implemented.

    Asset transfer also favours the middle class who tend to be most active in community participation, capacity building programmes, whilst working class communities see their community centres, leisure centres, libraries, etc close. In this context it transfers responsibility from the state to the ‘community’ which undermines the social democratic ethos that public services should be provided by Councils and funded out of general taxation. In essence, in the current context of austerity, it is a left wing variant of a well known, political creed, namely neoliberalism.

    1. Derry Vickers says:

      That’s why a formal democratic structure of local democracy is preferable to that advocated by the Community Empowerment Bill

      1. c rober says:

        I see the whole middle class use of council service argument easy enough , in that they are more determined to fight for it sure , but also are the primary users – ie sports and recreation for example. One can hardly complain about them fighting against the machine to retain services , but as the article noted they pay a disproportionate amount in CT vs the lower paid for it…. so perhaps value it more , more so with the increase of age and the keeping of inheritance provisioning via property transfer instead of sell off for care funding for example – soon to be the global financial shart.

  3. Patrick says:

    “In the US, more votes were cast for Hilary Clinton to be President than for Donald Trump, yet Trump won. The right to vote, hard won over centuries, is actively compromised in many US states by discriminatory laws and practices”

    My friend; Not all that U.S. Press published is true. Even now some blame electoral College was and is an excellent approach, the only reform U.S electoral system need to reform is open the vote in all primary, then, us citizen will have the power to elect the best and open more opportunity to others political- parties.
    Scottish people associate the Clinton with the Kennedy and there is a huge distance in values.In America Today the status quo is over.
    On concern to Scotland, the focus shall be to obtain the Independence and with time redact a good Constitution.

    1. c rober says:

      Uk politics , just as bad as USA for elections and troughs?

      EU rules , non elected , Westminster rules – with a govt rarely elected by the Scots , House of Lords – over rules unelected , Holyrood middle manages – elected , but by a different democratic provider than FPTP , LA councillors – elected but rarely represent their wards in personal horse trading…. more so with housing.

      Where for example was the change from Blair and Brown for making Westminster in the same vein as Holyrood – ie FPTP and regional “handicapped” lists? So why has Scotland accepted such a system?

      Democracy is a sham , more so in America mind you when it can elect a billionaire under the belief that he will destroy the billionaires. With senate and congress in bed with industry as well as near half of the politicians being millionaires , how can they expect change in their communities as a result.

      Of course we could go a little backwards to the formation of their democracy – to protect personal wealth from English taxation , using the people as their army to do so. So much so if we adjust the wealth of the founding fathers to todays money , then they make Russian and Chinese wealthy look like they only have spare change.

      Scotland though is IMO following the American model I have mentioned , where indy is now a secondary outcome to personal political employment rather than a mandate for supply , and where community empowerment mentioned in the article is watered down , or where Local Development Plans are used to create wealth through housing over community objection – not for supplying housing itself. The SNP supply as a School report card would only read must try harder , if not radical.

      Now of course out comes the dislikes , in that I have somehow aligned the SNP with self serving wealth creators , ie the enemy.

      But it is sad to say that it is , no more less than SLAB or Tory at the genetic level.

      I can tell you now that if Holyrood ignore those that elect them while running the CE flag up the poll , and indeed ignore their own legislation while doing it to allow the building of executive estates on farmland , or using sheds as housing for the affordable part setting the precedent for social housing , then it is proof of their intent , if not supply , that wealth creation for the few is the goal.

  4. Alf Baird says:

    Quite a few references to Scotland’s ‘swamp’ there. But where is independence in all this? Surely it will prove difficult to really tackle corporate interests’ (private and public) ownership and exploitation of our nation and people whilst Westminster is still pulling Scotland’s strings?

    1. Patrick says:

      Quite a few references to Scotland’s ‘swamp’? What more is needed Cut the strings of Westminster and everything can be tackled.

      1. Derry Vickers says:

        As Andy says there is ‘Lobbying’ of MSPs just as there is Lobbying of MPs. And its not only for money, its equally for the aggrandisement of MSPs equally as MPs. Independence won’t change this.

        1. Patrick says:

          What I really do not understand is because you feel defeated without going to combat.
          Unless it is the product of 300 years of Monarchy that comes to castrate the spirit of freedom with which we were created.

        2. Alf Baird says:

          Without independence, Scotland will never have the powers to change the self-regulation and exploitative monopolies legacy resulting from privatisation of former public utilities. And there are numerous other aspects of reserved powers that constrain Scotland for which independence is the only solution. It might be said too that the lobbying goings-on in Holyrood are merely a political cultural import from Westminster, as indeed are many of the senior officials running the Scottish parliament, Scottish Government and public organisations throughout Scotland. The ‘Scottish’ Greens will therefore need to soon enough firm up a policy in favour of independence, if they really want to see major change in Scotland. The main barriers to change are Westminster, ably supported by thousands of carefully placed ‘elite’ unionists who run institutional/colonial Scotland.

          1. c rober says:

            Alf – But of course those that think like that are eejits , snp badders or tin foil hat brigades old chap.

            It has been that way for centuries , the first colony is still the last one , our oldest families , our oldest monies are from those above them , and all we have done is move their income to that of politics , where we pay them for the privilege to give us the shaft , ” 50 shades of Saltire”.

  5. Crubag says:

    I’d agree with every word, it would he good to see a stable system of local government, based around historic identity and with powers by default, rather than devolved.

    I can see the SNP wanting to hold on to as much power as possible to prepare the grounds for indy2. The unionist parties have the problem that they need to keep in step with the parent party. Either way power sits away from the people and little change likely in the next decade or so.

    The situation with lobbyists is made difficult at the moment as the SNP aren’t operating as a normal party – they’re getting a by as they’re a possible vehicle for independence and they want to keep as many people happy as possible. If it becomes clear that indy2 is a generation away ( which is a 50:50 possibility given Brexit) then more normal scrutiny might resume.

    But in the meantime the SNP have a former MSP/current lobbyist (of Charlotte Street partners mentioned above) running their economic review.

    And the National Farmers Union has been appointed to help develop farm policy post-Brexit.

  6. SleepingDog says:

    Perhaps politics should take place in a glass cage, corporate laws should be rewritten to subordinate the profit imperative to people and the environment, and constitutional amendments require a plurality of media to hold the state to account. However, if the nation’s history is increasingly held in a rewritable digital corpus, then all attempts to educate the electorate to hold the government accountable are jeopardised. As long as the state is the arbiter of its own secrecy, the information the public eventually gets is tainted.

    We should demand that MSPs set the tone with bold action that scrutinises unpleasant and embarrassing aspects of Scotland’s past and present, to better trust that they may be capable of exposing such corruption in the future.

    1. c rober says:

      Good luck with that , politicians now policing themselves in Holyrood , and a concensus in returning Ms Thomson , those with a cynical nature already knew that last week there was plans affot to bring her in from the cold.

      Unfortunately the SNP has far too many self serving career politicians now , and of course are being spied on by GCHQ , and those well a bit too socialist are watched looking for their removal. The Scotialists are no better though than the other socialist veneerists , Slab , so what is the third option – Tories and unionism to keep the wealth among them?

      The Snp needs to become what it once was in one way , a party for an independent Scotland

      To do this it needs localism and radicalism in order to supply it , not just the mouthing of CE and devolvement.

      This may mean the removal of what I can see is 35 percent of them at least , that are those self serving personal income driven career minded politicians in order to do so , it really is that simple…. more so since they started talking about an upper chamber to increase their ilkes employment further , meaning more masters on the payroll for wealth creation and protecting it for the few.

  7. MBC says:

    Andy is still banging on about the council tax freeze, a policy for which hundreds of thousands of struggling Scottish citizens have been deeply grateful. He never listens to counter arguments, that the freeze was fully funded by the Scottish government, therefore did not cut local government funds, (it was changes to the block grant sent by Westminster which reduced their income) and that it helped struggling people to make ends meet. Neither does he recognise that the local government he apparently lauds is incredibly wasteful, inefficient and undemocratic and unresponsive to citizens. The planning system in Edinburgh is a disgrace. Neither does he recognise that when local councils had the ability to raise council tax they did so consistently above the level of inflation.

    1. c rober says:

      I agree the civil service that is councils need thinning out , proper local empowerment over family jobs and being the largest employer in many council areas.

      The CT freeze though imo was a political weapon in order to remove SLAB from council domination , not so far away from Thatcher in destroying the power of unions in the councils.

      But as the authour mentioned it needs radical change , where it is a disproportionate taxation system on home income , where a new system based on proper values of property and land is perhaps that starting point.

    2. Willie says:

      Not only are the lauded Council’s grossly inefficient, they are also grossly corrupt. Fraud and gross inefficiency is what needs drained from the swamp that is part of so many of our councils.

    3. Willie says:

      And was the planning department in Edinburgh the department that ” defrauded ” tens of millions from so many of its residents.

  8. Hilary says:

    I trust that there will be crowd funding to support Andy should there be an unfortunate bill to pay as a result of the libel case against him, if it still ongoing.

  9. Maria F says:

    “From that moment on I decided that asking such questions was a splendid idea and, the more it made folk uncomfortable, the more I enjoyed it and in a sense, that is all I have been doing ever since.”

    I applaud you on this, Mr Wightman. That is exactly what every single politician that is worth its salt should be doing rather than posturing, ‘abstaining’ in uncomfortable but very important votes or releasing a few soundbites to deflect attention from the fact that the elite that is taking advantage of situations like this is founding their parties.

    Sometimes I feel that MPs and MSP consciously forget that are there to represent their constituents first and the interests of their country second. They are not being elected to Parliament or to Holyrood and paid with public money to represent the interests of their party and even less their own.

    It is my opinion that when a political figure representing constituents is not longer prepared to ask the uncomfortable questions that their constituents cannot ask directly themselves, then it is their time to move aside because they are not longer doing the job they are being paid for.

    1. c rober says:

      Maria , in the vein you suggest what is your view on husband and wife in politics?

      We read often about our glorious politicians hiring family or wives thus increasing home income , but what of North Ayrshire – With a husband and wife team of MSP and MP , and when the hard questions come along they play opposite sides with their electorates? WIN WIN , kerching.

      The end result land soon to be built on despite being objected to , irregular and borderline corrupt practices from start to finish including the changing of school roll limits , lying about doctor surgery limits , questionable maths on traffic impact , a non existent need as the the driving force for using farmland against SNP and Holyrood policy .

      This rather surprisingly wasnt under a labour controlled council , or indeed a labour husband and wife political household , which we would expect given the track history …. this is SNP politicians at all levels , council , Holyrood , Westminster , from a party that lies on LDP being for communities rather than developers , supplying land reform that isnt , and community involvement well until its a rejection then its ignored.

      And the biggest insult is that the res legislation applied to that site , ie for affordable bought housing , means a profit for the developer , not a donation , through supplying glamping sheds as proper housing via his daughters shell company? To date neither the council , or the SNP politicians have uttered a word against it , actually with the aid of an indepdent reviewer merely told the developer how to remove the objections , hardly impartial. These are the legislators and planners – setting the standard for ALL of Scotlands social housing being sheds , housing not unlike those for the Edinburgh homeless for this winter. Shows somewhat the socialist veneer for our working and unemployed poor in action from the SNP.

      Many of us dyed in the wool independence seekers are now realizing that the SNP are not the deliverers of community empowerment , the best level of Independence , but rather its about personal wealth creation and protection of it for the few.More eyes are opened everyday.

      As long as housing is legislated to create wealth for banks and developers , enabled through Holyrood , by our elected landlords , property developers/builders , or staffs is numbers with mortgage fraudsters (alleged) and parachutist career politicians , then its time has peaked….. all they have to do is look at SLAB to see their future post a failed indy II.

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