The Silent Crisis Summary
Jimmy Reid Foundation
Scotland, with its many diverse communities, is a nation with a rich and diverse local tradition. However, this thriving ‘localism’ is not matched by a thriving local democracy; in fact, quite the opposite is the case.
It is time we fully recognised the state of democracy in Scotland. Below the national level, Scotland is the least democratic country in the European Union; some have argued that it is the least democratic country in the developed world. We elect fewer people to make our decisions than anyone else and fewer people turn out to vote in those elections than anyone else. We have much bigger local councils that anyone else, representing many more people and vastly more land area than anyone else, even other countries with low density of population. In France one in 125 people is an elected community politicians. In Austria, one in 200. In Germany one in 400. In Finland one in 500. In Scotland it is one in 4,270 (even England manages one in 2,860). In Norway one in 81 people stand for election in their community. In Finland one in 140. In Sweden one in 145. In Scotland one in 2,071. In Norway 5.5 people contest each seat. In Sweden 4.4 people. In Finland 3.7 people. In Scotland 2.1. In every single indicator we were able to identify to show the health of local democracy, Scotland performs worst of any comparator we could find.
In most of Europe community politics is ‘normal’ – people you know, your friends and family or neighbours will routinely contest elections to represent your community. In Scotland we have created a system where community politics is ‘strange and distant’ – you probably don’t know many (if any) people who are involved in local politics. You probably don’t vote. You certainly end up with a council which is by far the most distant and unrepresentative of your community of any comparable country. And you wonder why confidence in local democracy is low?
This is an existential crisis for local democracy. If we do nothing to address this very clear problem we will end up with a nation in which politics is the preserve of a tiny cadre of professional politicians who are separate from the rest of society. We will continue to live in a country where professional managers make decisions for your community with little reference to your community, and they will continue to do it in ‘job lots’ – not building a school for you but building half a dozen schools for a standardised notion of what a community is. And these blanket policies applied across diverse communities will simply dilute diversity and create homogenous ‘clone towns’. Disillusionment and alienation will continue to rise and the gap between politics and the people will continue to widen.
In Scotland we have been kidding ourselves on that a few successful audits of local authority bureaucracy have shown there is no problem. But worse than that, the letters pages of many newspapers suggest that we aren’t even widely aware of our status as the least locally democratic nation in the developed world. This cannot be allowed to continue indefinitely.
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