Building democracy for the next 20 years

Grahame Smith argues the Parliament has made a good start but has unfinished business.

In his iconic speech at the formal opening of the Scottish Parliament on 1 July 1999, Donald Dewar described the Scottish Parliament as: ‘Not an end [but] a means to greater ends’. The devolution of power to Scotland and the reopening of a Scottish Parliament was an historic moment. It offered the opportunity to revitalise democracy and to give the people of Scotland a greater say over how they are governed.

It is easy to forget the antipathy towards devolution during the new Parliament’s early years encouraged by some calamitous own goals by some naïve but hapless politicians. No longer. Even the Scottish Tories are devolutionists! The significance and the value of the Scottish Parliament are broadly accepted. In devolved areas, Scottish public services are increasingly different from those in England. Successive Scottish Governments have placed a greater emphasis on social justice objectives and public sector delivery. While not immune to privatisation and the neo-liberal driven policy, these features little in our public policy discourse.

The Scottish Parliament has offered the opportunity for a unique approach to the challenges that Scotland faces. An economic policy characterised by inclusive growth; a focus on reducing inequality and increasing fair work; curriculum for excellence and free tuition; free prescriptions and social care; the smoking ban and minimum unit pricing, are approaches shaped to reflect the demands of Scottish society.

To varying degrees, the STUC and Scotland’s unions have exerted significant influence over these and other defining Scottish policies. We have helped shape a broad consensus around the type of Scotland we want. The nature of our policy debate around the workplace – the drive for fair work, the valued role of unions, the positive impact of migration – is far removed from the current debate at Westminster. Contrast our approach to fair work and collective bargaining to that of the Taylor Report commissioned by the Westminster Government. Scotland has not been inflicted by the rise in ultra-right populism, experienced elsewhere. The role of our Parliament is not insignificant in this regard.

That said, we need to avoid lapsing into comfortable complacency. If there is such a consensus, it is fragile and doesn’t go far enough. Too great a focus on the Scottish Parliament as the sole vehicle for progressive change runs the risk of de-legitimising other critical elements of our democracy.

The biggest causality of this is, of course, is Scottish local government, which has been increasingly starved of funding and stripped of power. The prolonged council tax freeze, the centralisation of police and fire services, and the proposals to limit local control over education, damage democracy.

With some notable exceptions, including the unions, a once vibrant Scottish civic society has struggled to maintain prominence. In part, this is a consequence of the reduced capacity of our councils and other public bodies to engage effectively. Genuine social partnerships have been replaced in some spheres by commissioning and contracting.

The Scottish media is now so focused upon the Scottish Parliament, and the political class within, that significant parts of our economic and social life are ignored. In its early years, the Parliament consumed all of the knowledgeable industrial correspondents. Every industrial issue is now viewed only through a political lens. Media coverage of the STUC Congress, for example, is now largely restricted to the interventions by the First Minister and other prominent politicians.

Last month, the First Minister announced a renewed constitutional debate, with a focus on further powers for the Parliament. In her statement to Parliament, the First Minister said: ‘the devolution settlement in its current form is now seen to be utterly inadequate to the task of protecting those [Scotland’s] interests. In other words, the status quo is broken’.

The British Government’s catastrophic handling of Brexit, including its proposals to centralise rather than devolve repatriated powers in non-reserved areas, has undoubtedly placed significant strain on the devolution settlement. However, to characterise 20 years of devolution in such a manner seems designed to advance her political objective of Scottish independence rather than to promote a fuller debate on democracy in Scotland and on how power, economic as well as political, can be fairly distributed.

We do need a fuller discussion on the powers that our Parliament should have. The STUC, for example, would like to see legislative responsibility for employment and union rights reside in Scotland. We do not demand this as an end in itself. We demand it because its absence limits the impact that current economic and labour market powers have on reducing poverty and inequality and achieving fair work and inclusive growth.

However, the value of the Scottish Parliament must not be judged by the powers it accumulates but by its effectiveness in finding solutions to the challenges we face, solutions that advance the interests of the people of Scotland. This must include not only using the powers it has to their fullest effect, but sharing power with other democratic and representative institutions. Our constitutional debate also needs to focus on the role of local government, on the role of civic society and how Scottish communities, and the people who live and work in them, can be empowered to participate fully in our democracy.

Grahame Smith is general secretary of the Scottish Trades Union Congress (STUC)