Comment

There is a strong case to argue that the biggest threat to Scottish democracy is the relentless emasculation of local government. This is not a new process – many commentators have noted the irony that the vital role local government played in bringing about a Scottish Parliament was rewarded by that Parliament reducing its role in Scottish life. But like all processes of attrition, at a certain point you have to stop and check if the target of that attrition is even alive any more. We are reaching that point in local political representation in Scotland.

We are seeing what could soon be the terminal decline of local democracy in Scotland, and that itself is a decline from a fairly low base. Let no-one tell you otherwise; Scotland is not a particularly democratic nation. If you look at ‘tiers’ of representation, the distance between people and the first layer of decision-making over which they have any level of influence is enormous. In some parts of Scotland you need to travel hundreds of miles to get near to the first signs of democratic accountability; in all of Scotland the number of people lumped together in even the smallest of democratic electorates is enormous by comparison with other nations. Eberhard Bort and Lesley Riddoch demonstrate exactly the extent of the democratic deficit in their article in this issue.

So Scotland started with local democracy which was insufficiently local. But at least it was reasonably powerful. It is a broad rule that a democratic institution is important in direct relationship to how able it is to really influence the world within its own boundaries. If we elect people to a body which isn’t really capable of changing anything, everyone in the chain loses. The politicians see themselves as bag-carriers and not game-changers, bright people are not attracted to try and become politicians, the electorate senses the weakness of the body, the powerful vested interests see the elected group as weak and expect to win (just as the elected group seems to expect to lose), and the paid officials see themselves as the real centre of power. This creates a body carrying out important functions which does not believe it is important and does not attract good people. What is left is not vacuum – planning decisions and so on still need to be made – but a ‘blindspot’. Business goes on but no-one bothers to look.

What is left for local government? To manage contracts and clean the streets? What is left for elected officials? The role of agony aunt and call centre for constituents in need, passing their complaints on to officials? At what point do we simply stop calling this democracy?

As Peter McColl points out in this issue, it was really Labour that started this assault with its expansion of ring-fenced funding deeper and deeper into local government. For a brief moment the SNP looked like it had learned the lesson (where many of its members in local government could see the impact of centralisation) and the Concordat genuinely offered local authorities a much greater level of control. But this was squeezed and squeezed by financial reality – the Council Tax freeze took financial responsibility out of the hands of councils and left them in a tight position financially. It became harder and harder to do anything big because the budget was pared down (especially once the Scottish budget started to face serious pressure) to the point where the challenge was to keep services going.

And it is about to get worse. It already looks like managerialism is about to strip out remaining responsibilities. Despite the fact that surely no-one can still believe that merging public agencies actually saves money (other than the sort of technocratic bureaucrats who always believe such things), still we are going to see a single police force and a single fire service take even more powers away from local areas. It seems that the idea that local policing might be better guided by people who understand local issues has gained more-or-less no traction – in a battle between good policy-making and the mirage of technocratic pseudo cost savings, good policy doesn’t stand a chance. Now it looks like the quangoisation of the public sphere is going to drive a close-to final nail in the coffin of local authorities – with education set to be centralised as well.

What is left for local government? To manage contracts and clean the streets? What is left for elected officials? The role of agony aunt and call centre for constituents in need, passing their complaints on to officials? At what point do we simply stop calling this democracy?

But if this reads at all like a valiant band of local politicians are losing a brave struggle against a harsh overlord, that would be to disregard the role of those politicians. It is perhaps the lowest point in Scottish local government in many a generation – just as central government reduces the responsibilities of local government, so many parts of local government simply gave what was left away. In the creation of ‘arms length executive organisations’ (ALEOs) we find the nadir of democracy; councillors choosing to give away their own responsibilities. At previous low-points in Scottish local government such as the financial scandals of the early 1990s, at least there was the possibility of un-electing the corrupt. In many cases the scope for corruption has simply been moved beyond the bounds of democracy with entire council services being basically privatised (and those doing the privatising finding ways to get a nice salary out of serving on the boards of organisations which do the things they were getting paid to do in the first place).

The government of your community and mine has become like arial bombing – those pressing the buttons are so far above their targets that they simply do not see the damage being done.

So let us not shed too many tears for many of our councillors. They responded to an ‘anti-respect’ agenda from the Scottish Parliament with their own anti-respect agenda – to their own electorate. This is local democracy in Scotland in 2012 – what started poorly democratic has been further hollowed out from above and what remained was looted by some from inside. And just as with those European nations under attack from financial markets, when democracy becomes weak what flourishes is commercial self-interest – government of property developers, for property developers, by property developers. The politicians step back into the shadows and the technocrats take over. And for anyone who does not yet know what technocrat means, it means ‘functionary of the dominant ideology’. Which is a problem given the dominant ideology.

This can all be seen in one grand set-piece event – the Battle for Glasgow. At least here is a vigorous political campaign focussed entirely on a local area. It is a Very Big Issue – can the SNP beat Labour and take over control of Glasgow City Council? In some ways this ought to be encouraging irrespective of your political beliefs; at least there is a democratic struggle. But it isn’t encouraging, because the last thing anyone involved seems to care about is Glasgow itself. This is simple a show-trial for the main event – referendum, general election, whatever ‘national’ event you consider important. No-one seems to talk about the importance of local government unless it is useful for central government.

So now is the time to start again. The power of local democracy? It has no power, it is barely democratic and it isn’t even local. Scotland is at risk of becoming a fish that rots from the tail. Central politics is full of people who cut their teeth in local government but those in the next generation have nothing to get their teeth into. Where do we grow our politicians now? A sort of media X Factor it would seem, producing candidates with exactly the staying-power and depth that implies. How do we respond to local issues? Via a quango a hundred miles away staffed with young career professionals with no interest in your or your locality? How do we shape our country? From 50,000 feet? The government of your community and mine has become like arial bombing – those pressing the buttons are so far above their targets that they simply do not see the damage being done.

‘Local’ is the foundation of the Scottish nation. It is the foundation of any nation. The respect we show our country can be read simply and clearly in the respect which which we treat ‘the local’. Increasingly that means disdain. We will be a nation with no ‘local’, only an anarchic wasteland presided over by a coalition of supermarkets and the builders of poor quality housing.

We must take three simple steps. Step one: adopt the principle that all decisions should be taken as close to those affected as is possible. That is never a quango and it is never diktat from central government. Step two: make the local local. We need at least an extra tier of government in Scotland; perhaps two. Scandinavia and Germany could teach us how to build a nation from below. Step three: show some respect. Too much of this is being done by young professionals from the two big cities who see themselves as metropolitan and would just not choose to live in a ‘local place’.

This simply cannot go on. Barely a political or media voice in the country is willing to make this an issue. But someone has to. The Soviets managed from the centre because they (wrongly) believed they could do it better from there; our managerial class manages from the centre because they have no interest in what lies beyond. Government of Big Things Only can only lead to the decline and decay of small things. Small things like people, streets, villages, towns, libraries, clubs, neighbourhoods, the sense of community. Change must come, or anger and resentment will.

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