People and Politics: Reshaping How We Debate, Discuss and Listen

In times of crisis all kinds of change seems possible – even to democracy itself. COVID’s wartime spirit paused party-political hostilities. A laser-focus on health solutions and the public good emerged. Experts and science were elevated. Were these the early days of a better democracy?

The seriousness of the crisis emphasised the crucial tools of liberal democracy: how we discuss, debate and listen. The life or death consequences of government decision making dominated politics.

Despite this unifying storyline, the COVID crisis was not without conflict. No appraisal of democracy in post-COVID Scotland can be conflict free either. While liberal democratic tools are essential for a better world, they are not enough. When lauding democratic consensus and stability, we can too easily drown out inequalities of power. Who can’t buy a seat at democracy’s table?

For Scotland to have a more democratic future we must go beyond the dominant conception of democracy that excludes questions of economic control and collective organisation. How we constitute democracy is the foundation for how we deal with various imminent challenges – not least the constitutional questions that will continue to dominate political debate.

A New Approach to Constitutional Debate

How we debate and discuss Scotland’s constitutional status will be a defining democratic challenge in the decade ahead. Since 2011 the questions of independence and then Brexit overturned many old features of political life. This trajectory looks set to intensify.

While analyses of this change differ, there is broad agreement that constitutional debate has taken on an added potency compared to parliamentary politics. The consequences of independence or Brexit are considered to be deeper and longer lasting than normal electoral cycles. This, I believe, means we should expect a higher quality process of deliberation on those changes.

Fortunately Scotland has plenty of examples to learn from. Scotland’s referendum of 1997 was a ‘confirmatory vote’. The 74 per cent vote for a Scottish Parliament confirmed a national consensus. The referendums of 1979 (devolution), 2014 (independence) and 2016 (Brexit) were tightly contested. None of these processes led to a settled ‘national will’.

The crucial lesson from contested constitutional events is that they fail to achieve their purpose – determining agreed rules for the national community. The legitimacy of Scotland-UK and UK-EU relations have become the subject of far greater polarisation since their respective referendums. The urgent challenge, as we look to the future, is what alternative approach exists for people in Scotland?

My answer is a call for realism and gradualism. Supporters of Scottish independence lack clear public support and an agreed avenue to deliver a recognised state. Nationalist leaders have not done enough – in tone or substance – to listen and engage with the two million voters who rejected their project. Independence requires tough negotiations in a harsh economic environment and constructing complex institutions of state. It is dangerously naive to believe that a narrowly contested referendum victory sets foundations for a successful Scottish state. This requires long-term hard work on persuasion and consensus. Few on the pro-independence side have confidently taken responsibility for this task.

Constitutional gradualism also challenges complacent unionism. Leaders portrayed widespread enthusiasm for constitutional change as a conclusively rejected ‘obsession’. In reality the 1.6 million votes for independence was the third largest democratic mandate ever received in Scotland. A serious form of unionism would engage with why so many fellow citizens rejected the union and seek to change their minds to preserve it. Wholesale reform of the UK state was never taken seriously in the face of this challenge.

As Scotland’s constitutional future dominates our democratic life for the decade to come, fostering a culture beyond political entrenchment will be a challenge for us all. Yet we also face an even greater challenge to expand Scottish democracy beyond liberal electoral politics.

Expanding Scottish Democracy

For many devolution and democracy are synonymous. No wonder. It was hard fought for over a century. An elected parliament with significant powers was a step towards a more democratic country. Twenty-one years later Holyrood is cemented as the central institution of democratic life. Devolution requires a reappraisal.

The conventional devolution story is the triumph of a national civic movement. So-called Civic Scotland, the Constitutional Convention and campaigners unite to deliver a ‘better politics’ in the face of Thatcherism. This narrow account is comfortable and self-serving for its architects.

Fresh accounts of devolution criticise its embrace of liberal, retail politics and the narrowing of alternate democratic horizons. Rather than meet its high democratic rhetoric, Holyrood is complicit in a great political and cultural stagnation – with key questions of economic democracy excluded to its margins.

The authors of Roch Winds: A Treacherous Guide to the State of Scotland (Gallagher, Westwell, Scothorne, 2016) take aim at the ‘Scottish Ideology’, the language of our national elite that subverts the politics of conflicting interests and class behind a facade of parliamentary consensus. ‘Devolution politics were the politics of an elite,’ they state, with its design a form of ‘devolved Blairism’.

It’s true that the Scotland Act’s Schedule 5 Reserved Matters legally excludes significant Scottish divergence from the UK economic model – even if any of Holyrood’s five administrations had demonstrated such an appetite. The exclusion of economic democracy is rooted in the building. The Literary Politics of Scottish Devolution: Voice, Class, Nation (Hames, 2019) explains that devolved politics followed the culture of its creation. The ‘Dream’ of creating devolution aspired to a forum for a Scottish democratic voice – ‘seeking no more than recognition and visibility’ at the expense of a detailed political programme.

Too often Holyrood and Scotland’s democratic pedigree is measured against Westminster rather than international best practice. In Edinburgh the Executive dominates the Parliament, the Cabinet dominates the Executive and the Leader dominates the Cabinet. Thirty-two giant authorities exist under the misnomer of ‘local government’. The warnings of President Michael D Higgins are worth heeding, on why Ireland mimicked flaws from British governance and failed to embolden democratic culture outwith parliament.

The trade union movement, traditionally an institution of worker education and economic democracy, has withered. Collective bargaining and the withdrawal of labour has reduced as a consequence. Tenants’ union Living Rent and community land owners aim to rebalance economic power through collective organisation. Climate divestment campaigns have redirected the portfolios of major Scottish institutions. These positive influences, however, remain at the margins. Devolution’s managers – despite vast resources at their disposal – will not embolden any form of economic democracy for fear of the resulting clash with capital.

Scotland’s democratic future lies beyond parliament and the constitution. How democratic is our economy, our housing, our jobs, our land, our energy, our wealth? Where are our 21st century institutions of public ownership? If the architecture of devolution is unfit for these purposes then we must redesign the system and grow organisations outwith parliament that will do that work. Such aspiration, however, is only possible if advocates of greater democracy can work together.

Avoiding the Culture War Cul-de-Sac

The spectre of the ‘culture war’ is haunting Scotland. The phrase can be nebulous, so here’s a clear definition. The ‘culture war’ is the manufactured divide between specific American liberals and conservatives over identities, language and culture.

Deployed effectively by both the Vote Leave and Trump campaigns, it caricatures the ‘liberal metropolitan elite’ as holding alien values to ‘ordinary working people’. In the West many are falling into this trap.

In ‘Why does England vote Tory?’, Adam Ramsay (2020) concludes that war, Empire, and monarchy are the cultural epitaphs on which Tory England repeatedly triumphs. The response, says Alex Hochuli, has been retreat. The ‘young, liberal, instinctively cosmopolitan’ have ‘turned [their] back on the nation, in abhorrence of its working-class majority’ to instead entrench their politics in a language of liberal ‘American idealism’ (2020).

This American liberalism, however, is economically impotent by design. It’s a husk following 20th century suppressions from Debs and the IWW, COINTELPRO and McCarthyite purges. So instead a ‘social radicalism’ against bad words, symbols, or behaviour in defence of certain identities becomes a progressive crusade. Mark Fisher warned that this culture milieu combined ‘a priest’s desire to excommunicate and condemn, an academic-pedant’s desire to be the first to be seen to spot a mistake, and a hipster’s desire to be one of the in-crowd’ (2013). It is intensely unattractive. What could be a vanguard for greater democracy instead detaches itself from popular concerns in favour of divisive and irrelevant moralising. It seeks ‘personal repentance, rather than institutional reform’ (Lewis, 2020). ‘Withdrawn, elitist and judgemental’ is one motif of liberal politics without class.

Mainstream Scottish politics, so far, has remained largely immune to this culture war trap. Unlike in much of the West, the bare bones of social democracy remain electorally successful. The SNP’s remarkable broad tent and driving purpose has made it a resilient democratic project that manages to combine a type of liberalism and grassroots populism presented as being irreconcilable elsewhere. Ex-MP George Kerevan, however, warns of a growing cultural gulf between its party apparatus and supporters (2020). A politics of perpetual offence and retaliation appears to be an oath of passage among a new cadre of aspiring apparatchiks. Immunity may not last forever.

Democrats, both in Scotland and across the world, must never abandon populism to the suffocating sneer of those who look down on their fellow citizens. As Mark Fisher put it:

“We need to learn, or relearn, how to build comradeship and solidarity instead of doing capital’s work for it by condemning and abusing each other” (2013).

Actions for a More Democratic Future

Deeds not words. Here are some examples:

  1. Build a Constitutional Convention on Scotland’s future. Hold 32 simultaneous citizens’ assemblies. Establish a SNP–Labour–Green parliamentary working group on constitutional change. Workers’ representatives (trade unions) should take a central role in developing these bodies. Popularise a target (albeit non-legally binding) of 60 per cent public support for constitutional change. Advocates of federalism must publish detailed proposals. Pro-independence and pro-union organisations should focus on understanding those who disagree with them, including inviting speakers with different viewpoints. Hostility to different constitutional views must be challenged in all forums.
  2. Rapid expansion, with state support, of trade unions, tenants’ unions and community ownership must be a national priority. Establish public ownership of key resources. Revive workplace cooperatives. Promote worker roles on company boards. Gradually decentralise mega-councils towards town and village level control. Tax land. Launch a teacher-led expansion of citizenship education. Resource maximum electoral registration, particularly for the young and marginalised. Diversify entry into the professions.
  3. Prioritise material public concerns of poverty, services and jobs. Reject identity essentialism, a philosophy of innate and irredeemable segregation of peoples, in favour of stories of collective progress and benefit. End derision directed at grassroots political expression. Accept the reality of working with people we disagree with on certain issues. Don’t look to American liberals and corporate institutions for cultural or political leadership.

How much of this will be achieved directly due to the COVID crisis? Very little. Yet its experience demonstrates that we can rapidly change the priorities of our democracy with intense political will. All engaged in this type of work understand that such progress can be frustratingly incremental. However health, economic and constitutional shocks prove that we must prepare far-reaching programmes of democratic change for the decade ahead. The threat of climate extinction means that economic transformation is necessary for our survival and a better democracy. As citizens, together, we have a heavy burden to future generations to deliver nothing less.




Fisher, M, 24 November 2013, ‘Exiting the Vampire Castle’, openDemocracy, accessed at:

Gallagher, C, Westwell, A and Scothorne, R, 2016, Roch Winds: A Treacherous Guide to the State of Scotland, Edinburgh, Luath Press.

Hames, S, 2019, The Literary Politics of Scottish Devolution: Voice, Class, Nation, Edinburgh, Edinburgh University Press.

Hochuli, A, 17 June 2020, ‘The Triumph of American Idealism’, Damage, accessed at:

Kerevan, G, 7 July 2020, ‘SNP at the Crossroads’, Conter, accessed at:

Lewis, H, 14 July 2020, ‘How Capitalism Drives Cancel Culture’, The Atlantic, accessed at:

Ramsay, A, 21 June 2020, ‘Why does England vote Tory?’, openDemocracy, accessed at:



Scotland after the Virus edited by Gerry Hassan and Simon Barrow, just published by Luath Press contains a range of fiction, poetry and non-fiction examining where we are as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic and taking stock of where Scotland is as a society. This is an extract from Michael Gray.





Comments (9)

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  1. Jim Ferguson says:

    I found this a fascinating, thoughtful and interesting piece. In particular the 3 proposals at the end struck me as the base-line for what should be happening now in Scottish politics: ‘economic democracy’ is long overdue and it is true that capital, local and global, will be resistant to most proposals that widen the franchise with regard to economic activity/policy at all levels. I can already hear the cries of ‘leave these issues to the market’. Never the less the proposals seem to me the least that should be done if we wish to ensure a genuine democratic Scotland. There is little room for incrementalism with regard to these. We either argue for them and try to achieve them or we float into independence plan-less and with no ideas or resources to counter the forces of capital which have been winning most of the arguments for last 300 years. I’d take these proposals on board and move forward with them quickly; that’s if I was a serious politician and not a humble poet.

  2. Anndrais mac Chaluim says:

    It’s edifying, how often the imperious ‘must’ appears in an article on Reshaping How We Debate, Discuss and Listen.

  3. florian albert says:

    Michael Gray refers to a ‘call for realism’.

    However, his proposals do not pass that test. Amongst this proposals; ‘Hold 32 simultaneous citizens’ assemblies’. Unless the SNP agreed to this, it would have no democratic legitimacy. At present, there is no possibility of the SNP doing so. ‘Establish a SNP-Labour-Green parliamentary working group on constitutional change’.

    It took the SNP 40 years, from the Hamilton by election to the 2007 Holyrood election, to get a toe hold on power. They have no interest in giving it away. Those who want radical change must match their determination.

    1. Michael says:

      What’s unrealistic about each local authority holding discussion meetings or there being a working group among politicians? These are boringly normal. The potentially ‘unrealistic’ ideas relate to distributions of wealth and ownership – but even those are bog standard in moderate, social democratic countries.

      1. Anndrais mac Chaluim says:

        I agree. It’s totally unrealistic to expect the state to disempower itself in favour of civil society ‘from the top, down’. The idea that an SNP or any government would permit citizens’ assemblies to reconstitute the state along more decentralised lines is laughable. It might ‘consult’ ‘stakeholder groups’ in carefully facilitated conventions, but it will never surrender its power to popular juries. That would be political madness.

        The ‘natural’ function of any political party is to capture the power of the state, which its members can then use to impose their will on the whole of civil society, and not to dismantle it.

        1. Michael says:

          Yes, anyone who believes citizen assemblies ‘reconstitute the state’ can’t have been paying attention to how they work.

          There’s various pros and cons to how such assemblies have operated – take for example in Iceland, Ireland, or recently in Scotland. They can be one basic mechanism for including more people in serious democratic discussion, which made them worth mentioning.

          In fact Shetland Islands Council is holding one such local discussion next Monday – “Reflections on Self-Determination – an Island Perspective” to consider its constitutional future. ‘Leith Decides’ was another positive example of civic meetings + local representatives regarding council budgeting. The idea that these types of initiatives should be common place and encouraged seems to me like a small and positive way of looking at local democracy.

          1. Indeed Michael, they have been used to great advantage in Ireland. This isnt a leap to direct democracy. However as Justin Kenrick pointed out earlier this month the state (this state) does get quite quickly threatened by them:

            Which is perhaps a good reason to pursue their use?

          2. Anndrais mac Chaluim says:

            Yes, the point is that these ‘assemblies’ are top-down government initiatives in what it calls ‘community planning’, not bottom-up citizen initiatives in self-determination. In both your examples, the process is ‘facilitated’ by government agencies: Shetland Islands Council and the City of Edinburgh Council (through its Leith Neighbourhood Partnership).

            Let me tell you of my experience of such community planning initiatives.

            About fifteen years ago, I had a wee job wiping bums in a small area of multiple deprivation in south-west Edinburgh (what the Scottish Index called a ‘data zone’); an island of just a few streets, really, that languished in a surrounding sea of affluence. The residents of those streets asked me for help in addressing the issues that concerned them. We organised a series of closed residents meetings, from which over the course of about a year emerged a bespoke community action plan, which I scribed for them.

            At this point, the residents decided to invite external agencies to their meetings, with a view to accessing some of the resources they needed to implement their plan. At the first ‘open’ meeting, the officers from the City Council disclosed that the Council was in the process of setting up larger ‘Neighbourhood Partnerships’, which would produce their own ‘local’ action plans, and that our initiative would be more effective if it became part of this wider initiative.

            Like fools, we shelved our own plan and went along with the Council’s Neighbourhood Partnership initiative. Another year passed before the new (and geographically and culturally vast) Pentland Neighbourhood Partnership’s first meeting at Currie High School, during which our movement lost its momentum and drifted apart. Few residents from our neighbourhood attended this meeting a) because they’d lost their motivation and b) because there was no direct public transport link to the venue from where they lived.

            I had a car at the time, so I gave a lift to a diehard group of residents who’d been affected by suicide and who headed up a project to create a memorial garden-cum-breathing space on a small triangle of waste ground in the heart of their community. We arrived to find a horseshoe arrangement of tables occupied by ‘public servants’, within which we were corralled with the rest of ‘the public’. The set-up reminded me of a medieval manorial court. The remainder of the evening was spent by officers delivering policy tutorials, towards the end of which members of the public were given a window of opportunity to petition their lords and masters for some handouts. I remember thinking that the cost of that one meeting alone, taking into account the salaries involved, could have paid for a dozen green havens for those experiencing mental ill-health in their communities.

            The issue is one of power – the ability to dispose of wealth. Top-down community development is bureaucratic; it’s governed by a desire among bureaucracies to retain control over public resources so that those resources can be deployed in the service of their own corporate interests. The public itself is left competing over the scraps from the seigneurial table.

            If I had my time over again, I’d tell those officers who’d been invited to our residents’ meeting to take their community empowerment schemes and f*ck off. The garden was eventually built. Most of the cost was met by a community grant from Tesco, the land being gifted by the private housing association that owned it.

      2. florian albert says:

        When these assemblies discover that they have little or no power, how long will they survive ?
        We have a system of local government which is dying on its feet because it does little more than administer centrally made decisions. (Just over a century ago, Glasgow was a pioneer of municipal socialism.)
        There is nothing to stop the elected politicians discussing ‘distributions of wealth and ownership’. Once they have had their discussions, they could even do something about it. That is what politics is supposed to be about.

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