Scotland and the UK’s Democratic Deficit

It was Bogdanov who coined the phrase “the Dictatorship of Democracy” to describe one of the options for a post-Imperialist Russia. It was Mao Zedong who used the term “Democratic Dictatorship” to Orwellianise the role of the Chinese people to attack the Imperialist spirit of Chiang Kai-Shek.

It may be harsh to turn this phrase on to the UK, but the current referendum in Scotland is showing that there is certainly a Democratic Deficit that being used to characterize why Scotland is turning towards independence (or at the least more devolution) and why English regions and Wales are now excited by the prospect of real, permanent and growing change.

The UK has always had a centralized system of government. Based on English and Scottish monarchic government, the gradual transfer of power to a London-based Parliament composed of the Commons and the Lords testifies to the history of nations that willed government to the centre.

Regional challenges have, over the years, been destroyed – at least until recently. Nothing signified this more than Margaret Thatcher’s destruction of the Greater London Council in 1986 after Labour had won the elections and the Conservative Government could no longer stand its independence. The reinvigoration of London in its new formation – under both Labour and Conservative Mayors – served to provide a key opportunity to test whether the political centre could resist.

Devolution in Scotland and Wales (and the cross-party and cross-religion agreements in Northern Ireland) has been seen as the centre’s evolutionary resistance to change. It was not until the Scotland Act 1998 (just 16 years ago) that devolution was allowed there – having failed in the 1970’s because those in favour of devolution counted to less than 40% of those eligible to vote.

Partly because of the system of elections in the UK (which are first-past-the-post), Governments in the UK have tended to be elected with small percentages of the national vote (around 40%). As a result, the largest minorities gain the majority of the seats (except on rare occasions such as in 2010) and form the Government. This means that regions and nations such as Scotland and Wales may be governed by parties and ideals completely at odds with their own leanings.

For Scotland and Wales, this has been especially galling as they are both, in recent years, anti-Conservative. Whatever they stand for, the Conservatives are not seen in either country as their own. In England, the same can be said for many areas – the South-West (Liberal-leaning), Midlands and North (Labour). It is the south of England (centred around the highly prosperous heartland of London) that dominates national thought and population. Interestingly, London itself is not a Conservative heartland with a tendency towards social democratic ideals, but the outer London Boroughs and the rest of the South-East are dominated by Tory blue.

Democractic Deficit

Centralisation of power is the norm in the UK. The Centre makes all the decisions and regions (outside of Scotland) have modest powers. Most local authorities have decision-making authority over budgets for street lighting, refuse collection, local social care, local policing and similar but the assault on education and on local authority funding from the centre has been fierce in recent years and strengthened the stranglehold of Central Government. Education is a good example. The vast majority of state secondary schools are now Academies – outside of local control and reporting directly to the Secretary of State for Education. There is argument on both sides, but the centering of power into the Department for Education shows itself as part of a default mechanism in England. In Scotland and Wales, this has not occurred.

For Scots, the desire for change has been in evidence since the failed referendum in 1979. The recent debates on Independence focus on the “Yes” position as positive and the “No” position as negative (even if it is named “Better Together” the argument of this position has been entirely negative). David Cameron may have punctured the UK by allowing the referendum to be characterised in this way and none of the UK parties have been able to capture the essence of what positively makes the UK worth having apart from a nod to tradition and the past.

The reality, though, is not much different. Scots do not see the Conservative Party as relevant to them and while devolution has provided much decision-making power, the voice of the UK, spoken through Cameron and his ministers, is a daily reminder of the downside of Unionism. That voice speaks from elsewhere.

Before Cameron was Brown and Blair. Blair was characterized by centrist governance, dogma and, although leading Labour, was still seen to represent a distant (by miles and ideas) government. Brown was so dogged by problems (international finance and personal) that despite being Scottish, he fared no better. He was also a “died in the wool” centrist.

This has meant that the desire for self-government is also a desire for real “voice” – one that inspires people. Most Scots are no longer inspired by politicians that they see as remote in terms of distance and in terms of policies. Around half the Scots may well vote that way on 18th September.

Democratising the “Democratic Deficit”

The dictatorship of democracy (that leads to the democratic deficit) by the largest minority is central to UK politics and has been throughout its history in a country that has a relatively benign and social population. Of course, this is not the case in Ireland – a special case. In the rest of the UK (Great Britain), the democratic deficit has not caused national strife since the Civil War in the 17th Century – where there was no democratic ideal even with Cromwell. Apart from skirmishes (such as over the poll tax under Margaret Thatcher), British people have been notably sanguine. There was no Freedom of Information until Tony Blair (and there are many exceptions to this) and ministerial privilege can overturn national accountability such as in the alleged corruption at BAe Systems in Saudi Arabia.

However, the Scots have slightly opened Pandora’s box. Out of this referendum may well come the opportunity to reduce the deficit at least. This has long been a Liberal tradition – blind-sided by the link with Social Democrats in the 1970’s – before the Liberal Democrats came into being. Liberalism was meant to enshrine the spirit of “localism” – against the centrist doctrines of Conservatives and Labour. This localism would have prized a federal Europe (EU) and been at the forefront of devolution for Scotland, Wales and the regions of England.

Devolving as much power as possible to the most local area possible reduces the Democratic Deficit. This is hated by traditional politicians because it loosens power. In a world where national politics is such a profession, it becomes harder to achieve. It is argued that local power begets local corruption – the type of prolonged power that means the same party stays in power for too long and becomes corrupted.

This means that the second pillar of Liberalism, voting by proportional representation, is needed to offset the potential for local dictatorships.

The people of the UK are not naturally inclined to shake up the centre and their desire to maintain first-past-the-post elections shows a desire for little change. It may be that the Scots show the way to change and a reduction in the Democratic Deficit whether they vote “Yes” or “No” on 18th September. It may be a big decision for the Scots – it it already a potential game changer for democracy in the whole of the potentially dis-United Kingdom.

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