Last weekend – a rare sunny Saturday in Glasgow – around 500 people gathered not to drink cocktails in the shade – but to discuss the future of Scottish democracy: a new vision for ‘taking power back’ for communities.
At Democracy21, organised by ERS Scotland as part of the ‘Our Democracy’ coalition, civil society figures and campaigners launched a ‘Declaration on Local Democracy’, amid growing concerns that power is over-centralised in Holyrood.
It was the most powerful contribution yet to the Scottish government’s consultation on Scottish Local Governance – with a call for it to go as far as possible in devolving power to local communities.
There is a worrying fact about local democracy in Scotland: it would be considered the least democratic country in the European Union based on local representation alone. There is just one ‘local’ representative for every 4,270 people – compared to one in 200 in Austria, one in 400 in Germany, and one in 2,860 in England.
We are calling for often-distant councils to be brought closer to communities – with an expanded and enshrined role for citizen involvement in decision-making, including community planning, participatory budgeting and citizens’ assemblies on key issues.
Keys speakers on Saturday included Doreen Grove, Head of the Open Government Partnership; Paul Mason, journalist; Linda Somerville, NUS Scotland; Lesley Riddoch, Broadcaster; Kyle Taylor, Fair Vote; Darren ‘Loki’ McGarvey; and many more. It was a stellar lineup – but really central was the discussions on the floor. How to make our democracy truly reflect Scottish society. How to respond to the dangers of the online ‘wild west’ in campaigning. How to stand up for democratic scrutiny and a well-resourced, diverse media.
Here’s the Declaration on Local Democracy in full:
“Democracy is the right for people to decide how the place where they live is run. For a hundred years this right has built our communities, our society and our sense of justice. But too few people now believe that this right is being honoured, too few believe that they decide and too many believe they are powerless and voiceless. So we call for a new democracy which is ready to help us build for a hundred years to come.
“First, decisions must be made for each place, in that place by the people who live there. Our towns and villages must decide for themselves just as our nation must decide for itself. Power must exist at the scale of the community which is affected. We need our democracy much closer.
“Second, the right to decide should not disappear each time the brief flicker of an election is over. Delegating our right to decide is not, in itself, enough. We must create a democracy that involves us all the time, where citizens do not just choose rulers but shape the rules.
“Third, democracy must be powerful. The right to choose must be matched by the power to do – and the power to do must be matched with the resource to do it. Democracy is not gifted from above but from below, so power and resource must rest in the places where people live.
“This is our simple vision for our future; a truly local democracy, a truly participatory democracy and a truly powerful democracy.
“We have learned the lesson of our last hundred years; it is not enough that the future is built, it must be built for us. We must now learn a lesson for our next hundred years; it is not enough that the future is built for us, it must be built by us.”
That democracy is suffering a range of morbid symptoms is beyond question. Democracy21 was a fantastic way to understand the causes – and the cures.
It was inspiring to see so many come together to build an unstoppable challenge to the centralised status quo – and to build a democracy fit for the 21st century.
After a fantastic event, we know there is the appetite for a truly grassroots overhaul of politics. Let’s keep up the momentum, and turn that vision into reality.