Recent weeks have continued to see all sorts of handwringing and dark soothsaying about the state of representative democracy. Untrusted politicians, growing inequality and low election turnouts are just part of this sorry state.
So what is to be done?
A new report seems to point the way ahead for us here in Scotland. The Commission on Strengthening Local Democracy, set up by Convention of Scottish Local Authorities (COSLA), listened deeply to all sorts of evidence. Its work included going out of its way to look at overseas examples and to talk to groups that are not always listened to – such as young people.
Its findings and recommendations seem to have grasped fully the nature of the problem and to realise that what is required is a radical shift of power away from the centre and towards the people. The report states:
“Communities are at the very heart of a strong democracy. Yet over the last 50 years, Scotland has become one of the most centralised countries in Europe. We believe that matters, and that radical change is worth fighting for”.
It seems to be a statement of the obvious that centralisation and hierarchy are corrosive of democracy and have led to people being alienated from decisions taken a long way from the places where they live their lives. This report is not so much about empowering communities but about reshaping the institutions and ways of working that have taken power away from them.
There is a simple idea up for grabs that democratic power should be built from communities up, rather than dripping down from above.
The Commission concedes that this will be a tough job; after all, everyone who is active in public life today has only ever experienced the current way of working. They recommend a fundamental review of the structure, boundaries, functions and democratic arrangements for local governance of all public services in Scotland.
They suggest that this review should follow 7 principles:
1. The principle of sovereignty: democratic power lies with people and communities who give some of that power to governments and local governments, not the other way round.
2. The principle of subsidiarity: decisions should be taken as close to communities as possible, and the shape and form of local governance has to be right for the people and the places it serves.
3. The principle of transparency: democratic governance should be clear and understandable to communities, with clear lines of accountability.
4. The principle of participation: all communities must be able to participate in the decision making that affects their lives.
5. The principle of spheres not tiers of governance: different spheres of democratic governance should have distinct jobs to do that are set out in ‘competencies’, rather than depending on powers being handed down from ’higher’ levels of governance.
6. The principle of interdependency: every sphere of governance has to support the others, and none can be, or should seek to be, self-contained and self-sufficient.
7. The principle of wellbeing: the purpose of all democratic governance is to improve opportunities and outcomes for the individuals and communities that empower it.
Of course it’s up to those who have held power up above communities for so long to now give it back. This is not an easy ask, but this report sets out clearly the reasons why our government should give it back and the way that they could.
I hope that they grab this opportunity.