Trevor Davies: ‘Power to the people’ must have meaning

We`re having the wrong constitutional debate, says Trevor Davies
We`re having the wrong constitutional debate, says Trevor Davies
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It’s been 13 years since ‘MSP’ entered our lexicon, now ‘devo-local’ must become an everyday phrase, writes Trevor Davies

Thirteen years ago this week, the first MSPs arrived in the Scottish Parliament. I’m not sure we can yet list many big achievements. The Parliament’s budget doubled in the first ten years but, comparing ourselves then and now and with counterparts across Europe, we find our democracy is weaker and our public services still failing to deliver.

We see election turnouts down. We see our people suffering some of the worst health in Europe and worse-than-average schooling. We see the places we build and live in called “mediocre”, even by the Scottish Government’s economic advisers. For the first few years you can put that paucity of achievement down, understandably, to Parliament and ministers finding their feet. Now it’s because SNP ministers, with full control, are dragging their feet.

That’s understandable, too. As nationalists seeking statehood for Scotland, they want to demonstrate that the Scottish Parliament, part of the UK but with almost the same powers over its domestic policy as those of any sovereign state, is inadequate and incapable of improving the lot of the Scottish people.

Thus, with not much else to talk about, the debate, as they want, is all about the boundaries of power of the Scottish state. If not about independence, it’s about devo-max or devo-plus. Maybe devo-less will appear soon. So the main political action from ministers is about getting more power out from the UK government or pulling more power in from Scottish local government. It’s all about the state, not the people. We’re having the wrong constitutional debate.

Although to be fair, that’s what our political thinkers, from the Jimmy Reid Foundation on the left to Reform Scotland on the right and the all-party Centre for Scottish Public Policy, have been doing for a while now.

Read what they all have to say and see that our people’s well-being grows when power is local. Turn that on its head and we can surely say that when power is concentrated in the state, our well-being shrinks.

The big question they pose is, how can communities and people take control?

That’s where the real constitutional debate needs to be – around a radical constitutional option that puts Scotland back into the hands of its people: devo-local, if you like. If politics is to be about people, this devo-local idea, and not the statist notion, of independence is the next step. It is what a Scottish Labour true to its values and roots ought to be talking about.

Defining that vision of a locally-devolved Scotland is enough to fuel months of debate, as it should. But the guiding principle is this: that all public service provision should be devolved to the local, except those reserved to the centre. The same reserved powers principle is embedded in the Scotland Act which set up our Scottish Parliament and itself reflects the principle of subsidiarity upon which governance in most of the rest of Europe is based.

That principle means local NHS services being governed, provided and audited locally. It means education being governed and provided according to local needs and direction. It means roads and transport and regeneration being funded and determined locally.

And it must mean a far greater proportion of taxation to do all that being set and raised locally, leading even to different taxes in different places. A shocking thought in Scotland yet commonplace throughout Europe where people seem to do very well by it.

It is shocking to us because our local government, while judged “efficient” in management, is broken in reputation, denuded of powers and lacking in democratic accountability and support. It’s why most last week asked themselves – why vote?

In much of Europe it is local elections, not parliamentary elections, where turnout is highest. In Scotland, exacerbated by the foolish voting system we endured again last week, we see voter turnout down and competition to be elected at yet another low point, lower than anywhere else in Europe.

Devo-local is twin-track. It will be steady, not a big bang. But alongside wholesale transfer of money and powers from the central state to the local, there needs to be an almighty democratic reform of the way in which we do local politics and local government.

We need a new constitutional settlement within Scotland. We need a local democracy which is by law independent of Scottish ministers and which in its day-to-day operation, and not just in a once-in-five-years vote, answers to local people.

That means strong and competent local councils and, to some (but not me), directly-elected mayors or provosts. It also means devolution from the council to neighbourhood bodies, themselves elected, which govern the more local places in which people live. More elected local “politicians”? Of course – we have far fewer people elected from our communities to govern ourselves than any other European country. Electing our neighbours to help govern the place we live is a cornerstone of change.

It’s time to set out a new and relevant vision for Scotland’s people. Not more power for the state within new borders. But more day-to-day power for our cities, towns, communities and families together to make their own communal decisions for their own lives.

• Trevor Davies is honorary professor in urban studies at the University of Glasgow and until 2007 was an Edinburgh Labour councillor. He will be speaking at the inaugural Scottish Fabian Conference – Scotland: What’s Left – in Edinburgh on Saturday.