An extract from Scottish Civil Society

An extract from Scottish Civil Society
Ian MacWhirter, The Herald
29.06.09


It is very rare in politics that something actually works and we should not it let it pass unremarked, even if we don’t start popping BBC champagne corks in celebration. Devolution has been an achievement for that amorphous body called ‘civil society’ – the various non-party organisations and public-spirited individuals who launched the Scottish Constitutional Convention 20 years ago.


Curious, then, that large parts of civil society apparently feel excluded. Last week I was invited to speak at a forum organised by the Scottish Council for Voluntary Organisations with representatives from trades unions, civic groups, churches and NGOs. It has been looking into the ‘crisis of Scottish civil society’. Many people in the voluntary sector seem to believe that Holyrood has been taken over by politicians who have edged them out of influence and public recognition. Well, the trouble with parliaments is that they tend to attract politicians, so that’s hardly surprising.


Of course, politicians have their faults, like democracy itself, but we shouldn’t confuse the institution with the people who are elected to it. Elected members in Westminster and Holyrood are all drawn more or less from the same political gene pool: law, teaching, local government, civil service, trades unions, voluntary organisations. It’s not that the ones in Westminster are genetically inferior or innately corrupt; it’s just that the Westminster system of parliamentary democracy encourages MPs to behave badly. To that extent, the shame-faced dishonourable members are right to complain: ‘But it’s the system that’s to blame.’ The point about constitutions is to create structures that bring out the best in people, not the worst.


No, my concern about Scotland is not that civil society is dead, but that the Scottish media is in danger of dying. The indigenous Scottish press is losing readers; STV is giving up any pretence of public-service broadcasting and the cash-strapped BBC has lost the will and the means to lead political debate in Scotland. The Scottish Broadcasting Commission’s call for a Scottish digital channel has been ignored by Westminster, despite unanimous backing in Holyrood. Increasingly, Scots see themselves through the prism of an anglo-centric media which nods in the direction of devolution occasionally but really doesn’t understand life outside the M25.


Somehow, I don’t think this week’s tenth anniversary of devolution is going to be celebrated in the UK media for what it is – the most radical and the most successful reform of the British constitution since the universal suffrage. A peaceful revolution.