Individuals must seize the levers to transform our society
The National, by Michael Gray
One hundred years ago the British Empire was in turmoil. Mass slaughter in Europe, working-class agitation at home and rebellion in the colonies, foreshadowed its eventual demise. In Dublin the Easter Rising had begun. The distortion – that blood could buy true liberty – flowed far too freely on all sides.
While states and rebels still glamorise violence today, Scotland’s internal political story has long been a peaceful and democratic one. Our landmarks, thankfully, are campaigns and elections – not battles and sacrifices.
A week on Thursday will form another landmark. An SNP majority is the likely outcome – but its wider impact on the country’s democratic journey remains unwritten.
Signs of progress are there. The party’s manifesto set out broad promises on the further democratisation of our society, which sadly have remained largely unremarked upon.
These included having a national election day for all community councils, a new bill to “decentralise” council functions, devolution of crown estate revenue, a reform of community planning, an Islands Bill to devolve further powers, a council budget target of 1 per cent for “community choice funding”, and a participatory process over human rights legislation.
It’s no surprise that in isolation these plans fail to grab headlines. They are modest and consensual. In the long term they will provide greater accountability, transparency and local control – none of which is a reason for outrage or inter-party dispute.
For someone on the left of politics, I’m concerned over how far these proposals will go to redistribute wealth and power – especially given the party’s lacklustre tax policies. However, it’s churlish to deny the popular draw for the SNP’s mission over the past nine years.
It’s a mistake that some opponents make to simplify this success to the cause of independence alone. The party has reached beyond those impassioned by the constitution by becoming a competent, moderate, one-nation party.
In the last parliament the SNP’s most significant pieces of devolved legislation – in my view – were the Community Empowerment Act, the Private Housing (Tenancies) Act, the Higher Education Governance Act, the Land Reform Act, and of course the referendum itself.
None satisfied desires for change. Yet each bill was an ever-so-modest attempt to democratise Scotland. In universities, land and private housing there will be more say for those previously excluded from decision making. The referendum was more substantial – creating the biggest democratic event in the history of the United Kingdom. That is a record of democratic competence that the three unionist parties simply can’t match.
It’s also easy to forget that next week 16 and 17-year-olds will vote here for the first time in a national parliamentary election. Each photo of a school hustings or a campaigner in school uniform reminds me of what I lacked a decade ago in my classroom. While friends of mine bemoan the election as “boring”, could it just be that we’ve got used to the slow drag of political progress?
Yet finding our voice is not the same as creating a functioning democracy. Every platform, process or consultation will remain skin-deep as long as we live in a horrifically unequal society.
When speaking to bureaucrats and councillors about Glasgow’s homeless protesters, they couldn’t understand the anger of its participants. Why were they shouting, swearing, dismissing “genuine offers of dialogue”? Could it be that offers of participation – while welcome – don’t feel genuine when you endure deep poverty and pain?
Such deep-seated problems – where one in five Scottish children grows up in poverty – cannot be solved from on high by a reforming political class. It requires a revived democracy of community councils with skill, power and finance.
I’m told, sadly, that many of those forums for changing our country from the ground up are inactive or struggling to reach beyond small cliques. If there’s something we can all do, it’s engage with that most local level of democracy rather than leave the solutions to someone else.
The same goes for workplaces, housing estates, schools and all publicly owned institutions. It’s my hope that the expansion of democracy in Scotland will ultimately be the vehicle for the end of poverty, violence and exploitation. (Why dream small, right?) And that means the inspiring ideals of democracy cannot be isolated to elections or the actions of parliament hereafter. The levers to transform society are ours to seize, with the collective wisdom, technology and opportunities denied to revolutionaries a century ago.
First we do have the small matter of the election. It was US litigator Louis Brandeis who once said: “We must make our choice. We may have democracy, or we may have wealth concentrated in the hands of a few, but we can’t have both.”
That choice is ours at the ballot box, where we can choose between pro-independence moderates and pro-independence greens and socialists. I am confident that next week Scotland’s democratic journey will advance. The unsettling question remains whether that advance will ultimately benefit those who need it most.