Lesley Riddoch: Time to watch and learn – then act

Sports fans may have suffered watching Scotland's defeat but apathy offers greater suffering. Picture: PA

Sports fans may have suffered watching Scotland's defeat but apathy offers greater suffering. Picture: PA

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Local democracy is the only way to get Scots out of their seats and into the front line of politics, writes Lesley Riddoch

Tens of thousands of folk took part in Scotland’s favourite sport in recent days – watching.

Some watched Celtic’s defeat against Inter Milan – others watched as Scotland were beaten by Italy in the Six Nations. Supporters of victorious teams may not grudge the on-looking. Rugby fans may feel distinctly robbed.

But all spectators have one thing in common. They don’t play. And whilst being a bystander is sometimes fine, there are distinct dangers for health, fitness, outlook and society when watching from the side-lines becomes a national pastime.

As in leisure, so in politics.

Scotland is fast becoming a nation of political spectators – albeit highly frustrated ones. Not just because the general election could result in a Conservative victory and the Doomesday scenario all over again – despite devolution. Not just because last year’s No vote leaves 45 per cent of us reluctantly wedded to a corrupt and antiquated political system. But because the new activists of 2014 are fast discovering something unsettling about Scottish democracy. It’s built for bystanders too. And the Scottish Government has no real plans for change.

Having spoken at a small stack of meetings in recent weeks, a pattern is starting to emerge. Many Scots are alert to the way power is used and abused in Britain. The Westminster system, the banks, and TTIP agreement have all been early targets for analysis and ire. But increasingly, activist Scots are stubbing their toes on home-grown obstacles as well.

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Like the Castle Toward campaigners on Bute. Last month they failed to complete a two-year community buyout process thanks to sharp practice by their own independent-led Argyll and Bute Council. Supporters despair that well-organised community volunteers could fail to take over a neglected, council-owned asset and finally become actors in their own lives. But the activists themselves are far from beaten. They are planning a process to develop a better structure for local democracy in Scotland called “The People’s Councils.” Such a move is long overdue – because frustration over local disempowerment is common.

In Glasgow on Saturday, the Royal Concert Hall steps in Buchanan Street were occupied in a good-natured demonstration opposing Glasgow Council plans for demolition. Later, at a separate meeting of Yes campaigners, a disabled activist spoke of two decades fruitlessly battling the local council, NHS and benefits system. Another woman described frustration at the near total powerlessness of community councils with an average annual budget of £400 and no statutory functions save the right to be consulted on pavements and hedge-cutting. Indeed that may be why so many folk joined the Yes-leaning political parties. There literally is no other game in town. Yet in a real democracy, there must be.

Across in Edinburgh, a group want to restore the 17th century walled garden of Granton Castle for the deprived inhabitants of neighbouring Pilton. They are blocked by a planning process, active since 2004, which could yet approve luxury housing to be built in the garden instead and has therefore inflated its value far beyond the reach of locals. There are hundreds of similar tales. Of course, not all community plans are viable or desirable. But the vast majority do what developers cannot – harness the energy of local people.

Of course, the Scottish Government will contend that the Community Empowerment Bill will help communities in unequal battles with high-handed councils. Maybe, with massive local effort, it occasionally will. But a simpler remedy is not being discussed. MSPs could decide to re-examine and reform our whole top-down, over-large, “local” government system and (re)create town and island councils with income, statutory power, councillors and planning clout. The only way to stop uneven power struggles is to restore balance – permanently and structurally – with right-sized councils to fit organic communities. Currently, the average population of a Scottish council is 165,000– the German average is 8,000. The European average is 14,000 – which guarantees vibrant democracy and well-crafted service delivery – and there are larger strategic county councils too. Our own current system of local democracy, by contrast, presents activists and communities with a rock-face to climb and a strong likelihood that years of effort will result in no progress whatsoever. Why won’t MSPs consider change?

Of course, some fear that unaffordable top executive salaries, bureaucracy and nay-saying, risk-averse behaviour will simply extend to town halls too. Many MSPs (privately) also have no confidence in the capacity of local communities to wield power. Yet it would be very strange if Scots were the only folk in Europe incapable of rising to the challenge of running their own communities, and even stranger if such an inept group were close to taking over control of their own country. All the evidence from hard-won community buyouts here and municipal governance across Europe suggests that turnouts soar, more people stand for election and grassroots projects achieve lift-off when budgetary power and planning control lie at a genuinely local level. Happily, since Scotland is approaching the devolution of power so late, we can learn from the mistakes of other European nations to devise an efficient new system.

But why would Nicola Sturgeon, facing the biggest Westminster election in SNP history, enter such choppy water? As long as Yes activists are focussed on 7 May and her party – why bother?

Policy areas the SNP don’t deal with today will eventually become the property of a modernising opposition brave enough to recommend structural change. One day, the election rollercoaster will end, the drama of binary electoral choices will fade, speakers will fail to excite and politics will again become the preserve of professional politicians at Holyrood.

Currently there are no viable next steps for Scots except community campaigns that will probably empower but may also enrage, sap energy or end in failure – blocked by the arbitrary, trumping power of higher authority.

Scotland needs to become a participatory, community focused democracy. The Scottish Government can deliver it – but we must first demand it.

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