Share this post
Local democracy for local people
Written by Alex Massie
11 February 2021
Scotland is a paradoxical place at the best of times; a small country which is both heavily-centralised and lumbered with a remarkable number of sub-national levels of government. From time to time, it is suggested these be rationalised to allow for greater clarity or efficiency, but such moves typically never come to anything worth very much.
As so often, the conversations – or arguments – that do not take place are more revealing than those which do. The case for directly elected provosts in Scotland’s cities seems so thoroughly obvious and convincing, for instance, that it is ignored rather than rebutted. The first minister is, in point of fact, elected by the Scottish parliament rather than the people but, in point of reality, this is a mere technicality. The leader of the largest party becomes first minister and these are the terms of engagement upon which elections are fought and that are understood by the public. No such clarity is afforded local government elections.
And this matters because local government in Scotland is frequently neither very local nor very governmental. The council tax freeze announced in the recent Scottish budget may comfort wealthier households but it unavoidably leaves councils still further dependent upon central government for their income. The increasing number of mandates issued from St Andrew’s House and Victoria Quay have the effect of making councils the delivery point for central government policy. Their discretionary powers are steadily reduced year on year.
Eventually, that produces a kind of sham local democracy. Largely unknown councillors are elected by a minority of the electorate to carry out the instructions issued to them by central government. In such circumstances, accountability is all but non-existent. It would be more straightforward and perhaps more honest to abolish local government all together.
There are other, better, ways of renewing municipal virtue and civic society. Here we may posit that trends evident in the business world may also apply to politics. At its simplest: size matters. Largeness is a strength, but so is smallness. It is the middle-ground that finds itself squeezed; not large enough to bear shifts in consumer preference or regulatory burdens; too large and too slow to take advantage of fresh opportunities. Go big or go small but never, ever, go medium for that is the worst of all worlds.
If this is true – and from newspapers to the high street there is ample evidence that it is – then might something similar be true of government? Might it be that Scotland’s local authorities – all 32 of them – and its health boards – all 14 of them – are simultaneously too small to take advantage of scale and too large to offer genuinely local government, representation, and accountability?
Often, this leads to perverse outcomes. The pandemic has taught us many things but among them is this: there is neither any need nor any use for – to take but one example – 14 different plans for the annual flu jab. Some matters really are better organised at a national level. But it has also revealed the shortcomings in an overly-centralised approach. Thus, in the early days of the cover vaccination programme, GP partnerships frequently struggled to secure the doses of vaccine they needed in a timely fashion. Here again, we encounter this apparently contradictory situation: the centre needs more power (the better to promote efficiency) but the extremities also require greater responsibilities (the better to respond to particular local situations).
Maps matter too, of course. Some local authority areas – the Borders, Fife, the islands – are coherent geographical units. That cannot be said of local government in the counties of Ayr, Lanark, Renfrew and Dumbarton, however. Here there are evident arguments for rationalisation. Yet such an approach could be pursued in tandem with much greater devolution of responsibility to local communities.
To take but one important example: much of Scotland is made up of small towns. Places where a single high school serves the entire community. As matters are currently arranged, these communities have vanishingly little influence upon their schools. If the people of Kelso or Lochgilphead or Thurso feel their school is not performing as it could or should, they can do very little about it. The power to make changes lies elsewhere. But if local town councils, were granted responsibility for running local schools it would be possible to arrange matters differently. If municipal councils, operating within a regional frame of government, were given modest tax-raising powers, then so much the better. And if this might be true for schools, might it not also be true of other matters, such as cottage hospitals?
Life is in large part about connections with people and places. Municipalism is out of fashion in Scotland now, but its revival might do more to improve lives and opportunities than a hundred initiatives or task forces or consultations or steering groups established by central government. We might, I think, be surprised by the amount of human and civic capital that is lurking undiscovered.
A revived municipal Scotland may well challenge the authority of the Holyrood parliament or, at least, throw that authority into some relief. So much the better; the provosts of Edinburgh and Glasgow ought to be national figures, possessing a political authority distinct from that enjoyed by government ministers. It should be considered a feature, not a bug, and the principle of such authority might agreeably be replicated in still smaller political platoons elsewhere.
For at present we endure something close to the worst of all worlds: local government that is too large to be local and too small to be government. Better, more interesting, more diverse means are available. But it will require a government interested in unlocking real potential, all across Scotland, to make the most of these opportunities. And there, you may feel, we encounter a significant problem.
About Beyond the Street and Alex Massie
We are all guilty of being too inwardly focused sometimes, especially as we navigate these changed times. It is all too easy to be caught up in the problems close to home, and for overarching trends to pass us by.
To remedy that short-sightedness, Charlotte Street Partners has enlisted the ingenuity and talent of the writer and commentator Alex Massie. As our new correspondent at large, Alex will look at the bigger picture for us each week. We have challenged him to come up with something a bit different: broad, lateral thinking, thematic insights and a more global perspective.
Alex is a freelance journalist and commentator based in Edinburgh. Not only is he Scotland editor of The Spectator, but he also writes a political column for The Times and The Sunday Times. He features regularly on the BBC as a political commentator and has written in the past for The Telegraph, Politico, The Washington Post, the Los Angeles Times, The New York Times, the New Statesman, The Observer, and TIME magazine, among others. He was also the Washington correspondent for The Scotsman and assistant editor of Scotland on Sunday.
We hope you enjoy his work – and do feel free to forward this email on to colleagues and friends you think might be interested. They can subscribe to Beyond the Street and our other regular briefings here.