‘If it’s not built by us, it’s not built for us’: Reshaping local democracy in Scotland

The early years of this decade were an invigorating time for Scottish political activists. Meetings about the type of country and democracy we wanted started attracting hundreds of people – rather than the handfuls that we had been used to. One of the many things that took root during that fertile period was an investigation into what would make a good Scottish democracy. The Electoral Reform Society’s ‘Democracy Max’ project was an 18-month process: a representative ‘peoples gathering’ deliberative forum, public meetings, and expert roundtables all arriving at a detailed report – recommending everything from media regulation to a citizens second chamber.

Six years on, we are still pushing forward on the main insight from that process and the subsequent campaigns and actions. We are aware that our structures of democracy will always be limited if they are built from the top down.

In this age of political discontent and crisis, we have to recognise that the method by which our institutions are designed and made – if they are fundamentally elite-driven – will result in forms of elite rule.

I suppose one could just about live with a benign hierarchy if it was benign enough to share things out equally, look after the weak, the sick and those that need that extra care and kindness. But despite the best efforts of many of our politicians in Scotland, and the undoubted commitment, hard work and often self-sacrifice of many public servants, that outcome still seems some way off. This just goes to reinforce our conclusion that the problem is systemic.

Political intention, ideology, the personality and the party of our representatives all matter. But there is something inbuilt now in the way that our democracy has evolved that has made it operate much more in the interests of some than of others.

This is a factor of all sorts of cross-cutting relationships and structures. People and institutions (public and private) that have power and wealth are very interested in using it to get more – or at the very least resist sharing what they have accumulated.

In some spheres, this has become so hyper-driven through developments in technology that it is no longer contested in the way that it once was. Profiling and manipulation through social media, as well as the immense sums of money spent in election and referendum campaigns hang a large question mark over the idea of free and informed choice in elections.

This can be partly addressed by better regulation, policing and enforcement. But making politics local and deliberative – i.e. ensuring the space and time to think and talk with other members of your community about problems and solutions – is an important way to inoculate our society against anti-democratic forces.

“It is also a way to grow and develop more of into informed, critical and active citizens. Some powerful people might not like this, and might say people just want us to make decision on their behalf. But this is infantilising and insulting – because there are examples of Scots across the country collectively doing things for themselves to often hindered by the authorities and institutions when they need to be allowed to flourish.”

 

These activities have been the inspiration for the most recent phase of a campaign for democracy to be built from the ground up: ‘Act As If You Own the Place’.

The Our Democracy coalition has been learning from and experimenting with deliberative forums in small communities across Scotland – asking them to plan the futures they want, then vote on budgets for community projects to help make the plans happen. This has shown that these sort of new institutions and processes can be created within the shell of the old.

People are already trying to do it: let’s reshape our structures so support this kind of activism. The Scottish government is currently consulting on how to revitalise local democracy. That’s a start. The Democracy21 Conference in Glasgow on Saturday will zoom out to look at the challenges to modern democracy – but then go close up to where we think a big part of the solution lies: re-making democracy from the local, up.

Because if it’s not made by us then it won’t be made for us. Sign up to attend the Democracy21 conference this Saturday here.