Scotland’s Democratic Future After the Smith Commission

The interest in making democracy in Scotland work better didn’t end with the referendum. There’s a palpable energy and an appreciation that this is the beginning. People registered and voted in numbers unheard of in recent elections in the UK because they believed that they could make a difference – that their vote counted. This sense is real in Scotland and it’s exciting to see it. Though the result of the referendum was to stay in the UK, the promise was that Scotland was to get more devolved powers. But what? When? And who will control these powers? The Campaign for Scottish Home Rule is a cross-party campaign that wants Scotland to have a conversation about what happens next, what happens beyond the Smith Commission report. They believe “that this discussion should take into account three core principles: responsibilities devolved; raising what you spend; and, mutual respect.”

And so to Edinburgh on a chilly Thursday night where the Campaign for Scottish Home Rule along with ERS Scotland and the Democratic Society were hosting a conversation in the shadows of  Holyrood. I was asked to make a few comments and also to join one of the tables and take some notes. I had no expectations for the evening (other than knowing the bar served a decent pint) but what I heard was fascinating and a powerful message about what people can do when we involve them from the beginning. What I heard was that people dislike and distrust Westminster and Whitehall, that even hardened ‘Yes’ supporters have accepted the referendum result with a practical shrug of the shoulders and that both sides think there’s a lot more work to do.

We shape our reality through the language that we use and the political language of Scotland is different to the Palace of Westminster, where I started the week. It’s got an energy. It’s got a pulse and a raw passion. It’s got a sense not simply of Scottish identity but that moving power closer to the people will build better, stronger, more cohesive communities. They’ve seen mass mobilisation for a cause and they know it works.

We modify our reality through deliberation, conversation and sharing. I heard strong views but no one was made wrong even when others disagreed. Is one outcome of the referendum that Scotland has learned how to have a conversation with itself without resorting to the stale, old tribal rancour of Westminster politics? Maybe that’s too strong, but there is certainly a suggestion that it could.

And what of the debate? What extra powers should Scotland get? Well, some said “all of them” but perhaps more practically we know that some are staying put, like treasury, immigration, defence. But defence is an example of where there is a significant divergence of views between Scottish and English voters. So is it enough to say these policy areas “stay put” en masse? If there was one thing you could do, and only one thing, it’s hand over control of the tax system. This one move would allow Scotland to do more than vary taxes and duties, it would allow it to shape a society that the people in it recognise.

What I heard too was that it’s not a case of moving power and money from London to Edinburgh, a renewed Scottish democracy needs changes at every level. This starts with Community Councils and local government. Give people more control of what is raised and how it’s used and they will connect more with the process. We have to make it real. We can use participatory tools to restore and rebuild trust (it’s great to see that the Scottish Government already has a strong commitment to Participatory Budgeting). We can, if we choose, privilege people over power. But this requires a culture change. And talking of power, a big irritant for the people I heard was political incumbency and the rise of the professional politician. Some suggested limiting the term of MPs and MSPs, others that we needed more people to step up and bring “real world” experience into representation, not simply political ambition.

But how is this to happen? The Scottish Parliament can be dissolved by an Act of the UK Parliament and though the Smith Commission wants it to be made permanent, does the uncodified UK constitution provide enough safeguards to ensure that this couldn’t be undone in the future? The future can’t be simply about London giving away more power as Scotland asks for it but London justifying why it must be retained. The future must be about giving Scotland not just control over what exists now but a real choice to decide and shape its own future. I say this with no political axe to grind but based on what I’ve heard. And I’m saying it because the Scottish people aren’t going to sit back and wait, they aren’t going to accept a bad deal and they aren’t going to forget. It’s a case of when, not if. And when further devolution happens we need to make sure that it’s a real move to democratically empower and enable people at every level of society. If we want to keep the energy of the referendum going we have to demonstrate that getting involved makes a difference. That what you do matters. That what you say helps shape your community’s and your country’s future.

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