2007 - 2021

Democratising Scotland or Managing and Restricting its Potential?

Katie Gallogly-Swan assesses the state of democracy in Scotland after twenty years of devolution: “the question facing this young institution is whether the recent wave of democratic ‘innovation’ will simply change the parameters of management, or indeed be an opportunity to meaningfully release power not simply with the aim to pursue Scottish independence, but to truly respect the sovereign right of the Scottish people to determine their collective and individual futures.”

The Scottish Parliament of 1999 was founded on a promise of democratic renewal. Heeding the calls for popular sovereignty rippling across the UK, New Labour moved swiftly to deliver on this promise, though not without caveats (Jeffery, 2006). While limited powers ensured a specific remit of policy-making, reinstating the Scottish Parliament was also intended to manage the growing power of the Scottish Nationalist Party by ending the debate on whether home rule meant devolution or independence (Nairn, 2000).

As the Scottish Parliament has developed its own institutional culture in the years that have followed, the rhetoric of popular sovereignty has remained central to political discourse, particularly evident in the abundance of mechanisms to engage citizens in decision-making. However the codes of such procedures in the Scottish Parliament have inherited the managerial sheen of New Labour (Escobar 2010), and have failed to address the gaping holes in Scotland’s local democracy. This begs the question of whether the claimed accessibility of the Scottish Parliament in fact simply hides how carefully citizens’ access to decision-making and power is managed and thus stripped of its transformative potential. Ironically, twenty years on, the politicians and civil servants of the Scottish Parliament and Executive are faced with the same decision as New Labour in 1997: to manage or transform Scottish democracy.

As a representative democracy, the primary levers people living in Scotland have to directly engage with the Scottish Parliament are elections and public consultation. Elections enable citizens to select representatives based on manifesto commitments, while consultation lends legitimacy to policy delivery by using public engagement as a safety valve. How both are implemented and form part of the wider culture of the Scottish Parliament as an institution has significant influence on citizen trust in its democratic mandate, and as a consequence, the degree of empowerment people feel in the policy decisions that effect their lives. Getting to grips with first the way Parliament was founded second, procedural norms and lastly, the political aims of Scottish Parties illuminates the common threads and priorities that have shaped the Scottish Parliament’s impact on the country’s democracy, and a consequence, how ‘democracy’ is felt and enacted from community to national level today.

Democratic beginnings

The years following Thatcher saw a resurgence in interest in devolving power to sub-national and regional representative bodies in the UK. In the aftermath of the failed 1979 referendum for Scottish devolution, the Campaign for a Scottish Assembly (CSA), made up primarily of Labour Party members with some representation from others, quickly formed. Under Thatcher, their attempts got nowhere. In 1988 the CSA drafted the ‘Claim of Right’ document which was the following year signed by 58 of Scotland’s 72 MPs, 5 of Scotland’s 8 MEPs, 59 out of 65 Scottish regional, district and island councils, and numerous political parties, churches, unions and other civic organisations; together, this impetus led to the setting up the Scottish Constitutional Convention (SCC).

The ‘Claim of Right’ acknowledged the ‘sovereign right of the Scottish people to determine the form of Government best suited to their needs’. This would be achieved by ‘mobilis[ing] Scottish opinion and ensur[ing] the approval of the Scottish people for that scheme’. The political project for a Scottish Assembly was suffused with this rhetoric of civic inclusion, participation, and consultation from the beginning (Jeffery, 2006). While the ‘Claim of Right’ had then and has now no formal legislative power, it continues to be invoked today to justify the Parliament, and more recently, the SNP’s political priorities for independence (Hansard, 2018).

However, problems abounded from the beginning over who exactly was afforded voice and access in this vision considering the over-representation of self-appointed, older white men in the SCC, many of whom cut their teeth in political careers in Westminster. Some of the leaders and prominent figures of the SCC went on to become the fathers of the new Parliament, with all the gendered and patrician implications that implies. This group unavoidably brought with them the trappings of what passes for Westminster’s democratic culture. Thus a fundamental hypocrisy was legitimated in the founding rationale of the Scottish Parliament which has indelibly marked Scotland’s democratic culture and institutional landscape: the Parliament was necessary to redress the democratic deficit between Westminster and Scotland, however once founded, its powers were used to increase the democratic shortfall between Holyrood and Scotland’s local democracy.

Consensus Culture

The SCC came to be instrumental in the home rule consensus which informed the devolution plan which emerged following Labour’s 1997 victory and which was emphatically endorsed in the September 1997 referendum. Key to its success were the joint efforts of Labour, the Lib Dems and civil society. This collaborative politics was to bear fruit in how the new Parliament would be formed: an electoral system designed to avoid majorities, and a chamber designed to lack an opposition. The Scottish Parliament has seen minority, coalition, and to the surprise of many, even a majority government. Most of the parties have worked together at some point – even Labour and the Conservatives, in opposition to Scottish Independence prior to the 2014 independence referendum. One of the consequences of this kind of politics as well as the proximate influence of Westminster is an elaboration of procedures of etiquette, for example the ‘Guide to Collective Decision Making’ published in 2003 for the coalition government of Labour and the Lib Dems. Policy documents which focus on the ‘conduct of conduct’ such as this have helped to enshrine an institutional culture that has focused more on administering and managing Scotland, rather than empowering citizens and communities (Foucault, 1991).

People and Party

The founding of the Parliament rested on a message of partnership between parties and civil society, but most importantly with the people. Indeed the SCC undertook a consultative process to engage different communities on the question of devolution, further embedding public engagement as a hallmark of legitimacy in the Parliament’s foundations (Raco, 2003). However to evoke ‘the people’ necessarily raises the question of which people, and reveals the common thread of an imagined national community in the SCC’s project.

The notable absence of the SNP in the SCC marked the terrain of the different visions for home rule: for Labour, the aim was to build wider electoral support by successfully leading the regional assemblies, while the SNP believed the SCC was a distraction from campaigning for full independence (Craig, 1990). Capitalising on the same nationalist rhetoric of the ‘Scottish people’, it became easy for the SNP to undermine Labour’s claims of representation in the years that followed the founding of the Parliament when it became evident that the political energy of the Labour Party was more invested in Westminster. Benefitting from the embedded belief in popular sovereignty for Scotland that had developed in campaigning for devolution, the SNP’s messages for independence from Westminster gained salience, particularly in the aftermath of the 2008 financial crisis when the electorate delivered an unprecedented majority to the SNP at Holyrood.

Consumption Consultation

The focus on public participation was fundamental to democratic discourse in the Parliament’s early years. Launching a series of consultations, guidelines on engagement, research into participatory methods, and national standards for community engagement, public participation in decision-making was crystallised as a technical exercise. When the SNP came to power in 2007, they upheld this status quo. In their community empowerment plan launched in 2009, the heavy emphasis on service delivery and local capacity building echoed the managerial-consumption style of New Labour’s reframing of citizens as users and public bodies as service providers (Escobar 2010). This evidences a strain of neoliberal thought which seeks to use the language of community agency to decrease state responsibility and incite local civil society to do things for themselves – the SNP’s cornerstone policy on democratic engagement shared this influence with David Cameron’s Big Society concept that was launched the very next year.

Democratic Deficits

While rhetoric of the people’s participation and agency was deployed by all parties at the national level in Scotland for political ends, the centralisation of local democracy since the beginning of the Parliament tells a different story. Scotland has the least democratic local government in Europe. The average population size of a council is 163,200, compared to the EU average of 5,630. The average area covered by a council in Scotland is 2,461 km, compared to a 601 km average in the UK, and 49 km in Europe. There is one councillor for every 4,270 people in Scotland, whereas in England, it is one to 2,860, and in Finland, one to 500 (Bort et al, 2012). Turnout in council elections too, reveals the lack of trust and belief in Scotland’s local democracy, and turnouts across elections in Scotland continues to be unacceptably low despite proportional voting systems. The democratic reality is that people in Scotland don’t have faith that democratic engagement will have an impact, despite the lofty claims of the Parliament’s leaders.

Further, the focus on public engagement distracts from a constituency of interests which have benefitted from increased access to policy and decision-making since the Parliament’s inception. The business community, who were largely against devolution (MORI Scotland, 1998), were flattered into ‘partnership’ with early Scottish Governments to neutralise their dissent and confirm that they shared the Government’s economic interests in growth (Raco, 2003). Most recently, this was epitomised by Andrew Wilson’s leadership of the Sustainable Growth Commission, a founding partner in corporate lobbying firm, Charlotte St Partners.

IndyRef Democracy

Fifteen years on from the beginning of the Parliament, Scottish democracy got a shock injection with the independence referendum. The Parliament had failed to close the conversation on complete departure from the UK, and in fact had embedded a critique of Westminster control which enabled the SNP to win power. During the indyref, the decision between Yes and No caught the imagination and hopes of people across Scotland, and the number of local campaigners, debates, and creative projects focusing on the constitutional question fuelled a democratic blossoming.

In the aftermath of the No vote, the SNP initially continued to successfully position themselves as the party of the people, but it wasn’t long before those mobilising during the referendum turned their attention to the democratic issues existing within Scotland. Notable policy outputs such as the Democracy Max project from the Electoral Reform Society in 2013, the Commission on Strengthening Local Democracy from the Convention of Scottish Local Authorities (COSLA) in 2014, and numerous papers from theorists and policymakers on democracy were unified by a vision to transform Scottish democracy; decentralise power, build more meaningful engagement and tackle the growing inequality which undermines equal access across Scotland’s communities (Electoral Reform Society Scotland, 2013). To maintain credibility after such sustained and comprehensive democratic engagement during the referendum campaign, it was clear that the SNP needed to do more to satiate the public’s appetite for voice and influence in the decisions which affected their lives.

The Deliberative Era

Keen to avoid the hypocrisy of democratic deficits at home while pushing for further powers to be released from Westminster, the SNP have revived the SCC-backed concept of subsidiarity, which in its purest form is centralising only those powers which can’t be delivered by a more local authority. To build credibility for the ambitious rhetoric of popular sovereignty and with the backing of a newly professionalised ‘democratic sector’, a range of new policies, tools, commissions, and strategies have been launched by the Scottish Executive in the years since the referendum to innovate how the public can engage in decisions taken at Parliament. This has included the Community Empowerment Act in 2015; the relaunch of National Standards for Community Engagement, the Open Government Partnership and the Commission on Parliamentary Reform in 2016; and the Local Governance Review in 2018 in preparation for a new local democracy bill in 2019. These push the boundaries of former consultative processes at the Scottish Parliament: placing greater emphasis on power redistribution by increasing deliberation, inclusion, and resources for public engagement. However, the history of technical guidelines to manage the parameters of engagement hangs heavy on these new pronouncements, and their release hasn’t been without criticism (Bua and Escobar, 2018).

Of particular importance is the criticism that the implementation of radical democratic tools such as participatory budgeting has focused on transactional rather than transformational approaches (Plotnikova and Bennett, 2018). Transactional approaches provide resources in response to direct requests, whereas transformational approaches have a bigger emphasis on power sharing between government representatives, local organisations, and citizens. Achieving transformational outcomes from tools such as participatory budgeting requires resources to increase their deliberative quality and redistributive potential. And this demands a long-term commitment: developing the deep democracy such tools can engender requires patience as citizens and communities learn how to exercise and share power, co-creating a culture of participation – and making mistakes along the way.

Deliberation isn’t necessarily emancipatory if it isn’t connected to meaningful levers of decision-making and doesn’t tackle uneven access to power. An alternative future to the radical potential of these tools is that Parliamentary technocrats cultivate them as new sites of managing and therefore neutralising the hopes and ambitions of communities. There is a risk that these tools will remain an extension of service delivery and grant-making, with no invested interest in strengthening trust or engagement in Scottish democracy, meanwhile the lobby for big business continues to define Scotland’s economic trajectory (Bua and Escobar, 2018). This will lead to the continuing degradation in meaning of buzzwords such as engagement, participation, and empowerment, and with a global democratic crises engulfing political discourse, the stakes are too high for politicians in the Scottish Parliament to be complacent or indeed arrogantly assume the job done.

These risks can be overcome with ambition, but such decisions are not easy to take in times of austerity and fear in growing fascist movements. The Scottish Parliament’s founding has developed a robust language of popular sovereignty and democratic renewal, but the outcomes have not come close to the aspiration. The central hypocrisy of the Parliament’s founding sought to take power from Westminster only to then deplete local democracy of any capacity for agency, which has left little trust at the most basic level of Scotland’s democratic system. But this can and must be turned around, and the beginning shoots of a revived, active, and prefigurative democratic culture are just visible – nurtured thus far through the hard graft of people and communities, not by Holyrood technocrats.

Moving forward, the question facing this young institution is whether the recent wave of democratic ‘innovation’ will simply change the parameters of management, or indeed be an opportunity to meaningfully release power not simply with the aim to pursue Scottish independence, but to truly respect the sovereign right of the Scottish people to determine their collective and individual futures. ‘Managing’ democracy has failed around the world, and we face a future of climate disaster, unimaginable inequality, resurgent white supremacy, and endemic alienation. With courage, imagination, and political skill, the leaders at Holyrood can reject this status quo, empowering local people to build the bridge between the lofty declarations and the lived, breathed, felt democracy of Scotland.



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Bort, E., McAlpine, R. and Morgan, G. (2012), The Silent Crisis: Failure and Revival in Local Democracy in Scotland, Biggar: Jimmy Reid Foundation, accessed at: http://reidfoundation.org/wp-content/uploads/2012/04/SilentCrisisCover.jpg

Commission on Parliamentary Reform (2017), Report on the Scottish Parliament, Edinburgh: Commission on Parliamentary Reform.

COSLA (2014), Commission on Strengthening Local Democracy, Edinburgh: COSLA.

Craig, C. (1990), ‘Sham Bards, Sham Nation, Sham Politics: Scotland, Nationalism and Socialism’, The Irish Review, No. 8, 21-33.

Electoral Reform Society Scotland (2013), Democracy Max: An Inquiry into the Future of Scottish Democracy, Edinburgh: Electoral Reform Society.

Escobar, O. (2010), Public engagement in global context: Understanding the UK shift towards dialogue and deliberation, Edinburgh: Queen Margaret University.

Escobar, O. (2014), ‘Towards Participatory Democracy in Scotland’, in POST (ed.), Scotland 44: Ideas for a new nation, POST, Edinburgh, 24-33.

Escobar, O. and Katz B. (2018), Mainstreaming participatory budgeting: What works in building foundations for a more participatory democracy?, Glasgow: What Works Scotland.

Evidence Bank (2017), ‘Hard to reach’ or ‘easy to ignore’? Promoting equality in community engagement’, Glasgow: What Works Scotland.

Foucault M. (1991), ‘Governmentality’, in Burchell G., Gordon C. and Miller P. (eds), The Foucault Effect: studies in governmentality, Harvester Wheatsheaf: London, 87-104.

Jeffery, C. (2006), ‘Devolution and Local Government’, Publius, Vol. 36, No. 1 , 57-73.

MORI Scotland (1998), Survey of Scottish captains of industry, Edinburgh: MORI Scotland.

Nairn, T. (2000), After Britain: New Labour and the return of Scotland, London: Granta Books.

Plotnikova, E. and Bennett H. (2018), Exploring Perceived opportunities and challenges of Participation Requests in Scotland, Glasgow: What Works Scotland.

Raco, M. (2003), ‘Governmentality, Subject-Building, and the Discourses and Practices of Devolution in the UK’, Transactions of the Institute of British Geographers, Vol. 28, No. 1, 75-95.

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This article is reproduced from ‘Scotland the Brave? Twenty Years of Change and the Future of the Nation’ edited by Gerry Hassan and Simon Barrow (Luath Press, 2019).




Comments (5)

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  1. Nancy S says:

    I might have missed it but in all the coverage of the proposed Citizens’ Assembly, I haven’t heard the Scottish Civic Forum (1999-2009) mentioned, (with the exception of Iain Macwhirter writing in the Herald in April). In my opinion the forum played a great role in public participation, keeping the people of Scotland informed about the Scottish Parliament and Executive (as it was then) and also fed in the views of people around Scotland, gathered via meetings held across the country. It also produced really useful A4 sheets with precis of proposed legislation, enabling the public to make informed responses. I always felt that there were politics and personality clashes behind the forum’s demise and that some people didn’t want the public to be informed or involved. The fact that, latterly, it relied on Scottish Executive funding didn’t help – perceived as “he who pays the piper” and all that. I remember at the time its funding was withdrawn that one response from the Executive was that the Parliament’s Politics Festival, held in Edinburgh, could fulfil the public participation role. Really?

    For those who don’t know about it, or have forgotten, check out these links:



  2. Alasdair Macdonald says:

    There is a case for widening democratic participation in decision making from the very local to the national level, however, this article has signally failed to make it with its carping language – how often is the word ‘hypocrisy’ used, for example?

    I can recall from the ‘little red book’ of the thoughts of Chairman Mao, “We are not only good at destroying the old order, we are good at building the new.” Since 1949, China has had a lot of setbacks on the road to ‘building the new’, but, its economy will soon become the largest in the world. However, whether we would like to live in present day China is another matter. The Chinese have tended to think long term – Chou en Lai, when asked about the ramifications of the French Revolution, reportedly replied, “It is too early to tell.”

    Change takes time, particularly the changing of mindsets, but when such change starts, it can often proceed quite rapidly. We might be in such a period just now, following the financial crash of 2008 (and, perhaps another one is likely, soon), the Scottish independence referendum of 2014, the EU referendum and the saga of Brexit, the cracks in the Tories and Labour, etc. It is a period of uncertainty and, undoubtedly there are some pretty nasty ideas gaining publicity. However, there are other constructive movements, even if the mainstream media do not publicise them very much, but sites like Bella Caledonia do.

    Sadly, this article is not one of these.

    1. Jenny Tizard says:

      So…. are you saying it’s easier to criticize than come up with solutions?

      1. Alasdair Macdonald says:

        Yes … and point taken, Jenny! Touche!!

  3. SleepingDog says:

    If the people cannot change the constitution, as is the case throughout the UK, then it isn’t really a democracy, I would suggest.

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