When Neil McGarvey and I wrote the first edition of Scottish Politics, we devoted a full chapter (11) to definitions of democracy and post-1999 developments in Scottish democracy. In the second edition, we removed that chapter because there was nothing new to say.
Although the principles behind phrases such as ‘deliberative’ and ‘participative’ democracy are important, I felt that they often represented empty rhetoric in Scotland. In Scotland, we talked a lot about doing things differently, but produced political practices that would not seem out of place in Westminster.
Then came the debate on Scottish independence: the 85% turnout to vote Yes or No, the sense that Scotland was now – or again? – a hub for deliberation and high participation, and a new Scottish Government agenda on translating that participation into something longer term, to produce examples of participatory policymaking.
So, maybe we will have a chapter on participation in the 3rd edition. I doubt it. I reckon Scottish politics will soon revert to its old self.
I base this expectation on a logical argument about the relationship between representation and other forms of democracy, the previously too-high expectations for new Scottish politics, and a sense of unfulfilled expectations in the Scottish experience since devolution.
What can compete with representative (and pluralist) democracy?
In Scottish Politics (pp220-4), we argue that ‘new politics’ involves reforms to four kinds of democracy:
This will remain the most important democratic mechanism because ‘direct democracy at a national level would involve too many participants with too little time to devote to politics, and insufficient knowledge to apply to the wide range of responsibilities of the modern state. The main alternative is representative or indirect democracy in which popular sovereignty is expressed through regular elections of representatives acting on their behalf’.
We lose sight of its importance when thinking about other forms of democracy as somehow replacing representative. Instead, we should treat any other activity as a bonus, and consider how it fits in to the bigger picture.
In this category, the most important developments relate to:
(1) the more proportional electoral system – mixed member proportional (MMP) – for the Scottish Parliament (previous lecture)
(2) successful attempts by some parties to make sure that MSPs better represent the social background of the population than their MP counterparts. I say ‘some parties’ but note from Scottish Politics – and these articles by Keating & Cairney, and Cairney, Keating & Wilson – that only Scottish Labour achieved gender parity among their MSPs (these issues are explored in greater depth by scholars such as Kenny and MacKay). In other ways, the experience is more mixed. The Scottish Parliament is often no better at ‘microcosmic’ representation in other key categories – such as ethnicity, disability, and sexuality – and it has its own version of a ‘political class’ divorced from the ‘real world’ outside of politics.
This category is the most relevant to the course, since it relates to the pervasiveness of ‘policy communities’ or networks in policymaking. Elections produce mass participation every 4 or 5 years, while policymaking and delivery happens all the time. Policymakers and ‘pressure participants’ such as interest groups form relationships, build up trust, and engage regularly with each other. They discuss the principles and details of policies in a way that few actors can do without the specialist knowledge and time to engage.
In this category, the most important developments relate to:
(1) a vague sentiment, expressed by the SCC, to avoid speaking to the ‘usual suspects’ and, instead, to broaden consultation to many participants (an aim explored in the literature on the ‘Scottish policy style’). This sentiment was re-stated by the SNP government in 2007 as an attempt to consult beyond the ‘establishment’. In both cases, it is a soundbite that ignores the logic of consulting with the most interested, expert, and active groups (a point explored well by Jordan and Stevenson, which Neil and I discuss in chapter 11).
(2) A role for Scottish Parliament committees to oversee the quality of Scottish Government consultation, and take action – in relation to draft legislation – if it is not satisfied. I think that 2 committees have used this power in 16 years, but what does this statistic signify: that committees don’t have many powers in practice, or that the Scottish Government consults so well that the power only needs to be used rarely?
Participatory and deliberative democracy
For me, initiatives to increase participatory and deliberative democracy should be seen in this initial context of representative and pluralist democracy. Why start with a focus on initially exciting, but ultimately disappointing, new forms of participation without first stating that most participation is through elections and most deliberation in networks?
The SCC got the ball-of-hype rolling by declaring that Scotland has, ‘consistently declared through the ballot box the wish for an approach to public policy which accords more closely with its collective and community traditions’. We can talk in the lecture about how well substantiated such claims are.
Perhaps more importantly, the SCC did not design the details of devolution. So, while we may wonder what it might have come up with, we can say with greater certainty that the most important developments relate to:
(1) A Scottish Civic Forum to act as a new forum for participation and deliberation among a self-selecting public. It ran from 1999-2006. Well-established interest groups described it as a ‘talking shop’ and did not use it (they had their own access to government), but some community groups and individuals did. Yet, it was difficult to get many people involved (particularly in regional events) and even more difficult to feed its reports into government and parliamentary processes.
(2) A petitions process coordinated by the Scottish Parliament. See Chris Carman’s report and journal article on this. My take is that, although the petitions process gives people a way to engage in politics and, in a very small number of cases, set the parliament’s or government’s agenda on one or two issues, it is peripheral to the policy process.
(3) A wider sense that a powerful Scottish Parliament would become the hub for such initiatives and, through regular debate, become the main arena for public deliberation (see next lecture, but don’t get your hopes up).
Did we revisit those expectations during the debate on Scottish independence?
No, not really. Instead, we saw some interesting attempts to generate interest in participatory and deliberative forms of democracy beyond government and parliament – see ERS Scotland’s Democracy Max, and my take on it – but without meaningful ‘ownership’ of those initiatives by government or parliament. For example, have a look at the Scottish Government’s White Paper on Scottish independence and see what you can spot.
For me, the most telling part of this limited debate was the reference, by advocates of reform, to phrases like ‘politics is broken’ in 2014 when the same phrases were used to push forward political reforms in Scotland from 1999. This sense of déjà vu gives you an indicator of how far the ‘new Scottish politics’ has changed practices in Scotland.
What are the prospects for new forms of participation?
For me, deliberative and participatory politics represents the personal equivalent of things that I would like to do if I had the time. I have a list of colleagues that I’d like to work with more, and I have a vague desire to play a round of golf before I die. At the same time, in most cases, I know that I will never have the time. Indeed, when you care about something enough, you make the time.
To put it another way, when you don’t have the time or enthusiasm for something, it might be better just to stop pretending that a vague aim might pan out one day. It just gets in the way of a more meaningful discussion of what’s actually happening while we pretend that loads of people are participating in new ways of doing politics in Scotland.
Other opinions are available
There are people who know more about these things than me, or are younger and more optimistic about life. For example, Oliver Escobar is doing work on this topic as part of What Works Scotland, and his PhD is here. You might also bump into Peter Matthews or Vikki McCall on the other side of campus and ask them what they are up to.