Decentralisation and community empowerment are, the First Minister told us at this week’s launch of the SNP’s election manifesto, aka her “job application”, core aims of the new Scottish Government she will form and lead early in May – in just two weeks from now.
We believe that devolution of powers from London should not stop here in Edinburgh – it should continue on down to all of the diverse communities that make up our wonderful country. The decisions that affect our lives should always be taken as close to us as possible.
This laudable affirmation of ‘subsidiarity’ hardly squares, however, with the realities of the exercise of political and administrative power in contemporary Scotland. The SNP under Nicola Sturgeon and Peter Murrell, its CEO and her spouse, appears to be the closest exemplar we’ve got of the democratic centralism that marked the old Communist Party of the Soviet Union – or today’s AKP under Recep Tayyip Erdogan.
Not much room for dissent: its 54 MPs all back scrapping Trident, remaining in the EU, keeping the Queen, etc; its annual delegate conference (with a rare blip on, say, land reform) sticks to the platform’s agenda and decisions; its MSPs sitting on Holyrood committees do what the Sturgeon cabinet tells them to do – or undoes what it previously thought at the same executive’s behest. David Cameron would die for this degree of disciplined unanimity.
John Swinney’s 2016 budget settlement passes virtually the entire burden of spending cuts (£500m) onto local authorities with barely a whiff of public complaint at his diktat from SNP councillors who will have to live with the consequences. (Those who do speak up such as the leader of the party group in Edinburgh are swiftly booted out.)
Well, this picture of life inside the SNP was – off and on – challenged at an Electoral Reform Society debate in Glasgow just hours after Sturgeon and some 1400 party members held aloft the manifesto bearing the portrait of the dear leader. “Does Scotland have a predominant party problem?” was the theme (from the excellent eponymous pamphlet just issued and available to download here).
Andrew Tickell, law lecturer aka @PeatWorrier, was dismissive (“folks ain’t numpties”) though Gerry Hassan, chairing, spoke of the start of a “court politics” around the SNP leadership. The panel, including Angela Haggerty (Common Space) and Lesley Riddoch, seemed more exercised about #BothVotesSNP, John Curtice’s related ERS pamphlet that has prompted much Pavlovian and ill-informed criticism from diehard Yessers – and about the attacks on pro-indy supporters rightly querying/challenging SNP policies. Haggerty lamented the failure to “break free of the old Scottish politics” as presaged in 2014 or what Riddoch over-egged as “the summer of love.”
What new politics?
But the discussion – enlivened mainly by ex-Labour members of the SNP – was disappointingly shallow despite efforts by the ERS’s Rory Scothorne (ex-National Collective) to raise the stakes. A “new politics” cannot simply mean replacing ScoLab with an oligarchic SNP in semi-perpetuity. Nor can it mean waiting until Labour does or doesn’t recover and the Scottish Tories declare UDI from CCHQ.
More critically, it cannot possibly mean being governed by an over-mighty executive exploiting an absolute majority to dragoon an elected parliament into backing it come what may (see P27 of the ERS pamphlet). And it doesn’t mean accepting that the current d’Hondt German-style system of PR (constituency and list MPs) cannot be amended (it isn’t proportional enough for starters as Curtice shows).
It’s all very well – and right – to criticise the Westminster model of democracy (even without the recent ludicrous ‘election’ of a hereditary peer) or indeed the EU’s democratic deficit. But there’s plenty of scope for argument and discussion here in Scotland on a better, fairer system “close to us as possible” – encouraging not only a richer civil society but that plurality of voices Haggerty wished to hear and the once-envisaged “civic forum” was designed to embody. Why not, too, elect committee chairs in Holyrood and give them more powers? Why carry on with unicameral politics there? What kind of second chamber do we want? Or do we? (Westminster for all its faults is often asked to think again by the Lords. Many badly drafted laws slip unchecked through Holyrood – look out for the consequences of the new Private Housing Tenancies (Scotland) Act now carrying careless amendments passed without discussion or scrutiny]
This debate – like the long overdue one on federalism in the UK – needs to start right now or before Sturgeon settles in for a full period in office sustained by 75 or so like-minded MSPs while a shrivelled Labour and slightly enlarged Tory opposition, plus or minus a handful of Greens and the odd LibDem or two, fail to land a glove for maybe the full five years. And proposals for genuine decentralisation – with the risk that it will empower other parties or movements not of the SNP’s persuasion – should be discussed before scores of councils are taken over by the SNP a year from now.
That would be the start of a real new politics. Or is Scotland simply not as radical as it likes to think it is?