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June 17, 2009

Is this how democracy is supposed to be?

A few weeks ago LPL highlighted the campaign being waged by parents in Glasgow to save their schools from closure.  In the end, the campaign achieved little (one school escaped closure) but it gave a revealing  insight into how representative democracy works in this country ; or rather doesn’t.  Kenneth Roy, writing for the Institute of Contemporary Scotland, gives his assessment

Kenneth Roy

This is a little story of how representative democracy works; or rather doesn’t.

After a campaign by parents against Glasgow’s proposed programme of primary and nursery school closures, the city council met on 23rd April to reach a final decision. It had been a long, eye-catching campaign. Some had occupied school buildings; others had chained themselves to railings. To say that feelings ran high on the day of decision would be an under-statement. A vocal placard-carrying group, including babes in arms, gathered outside the city chambers while the councillors talked and voted.

I was not there, but have seen footage of the sad scene; watched it several times. The most striking thing about the protesters – it must be stated frankly – is that they were the unmistakeable voices of the Glasgow working class; there was not a trace of a middle-class accent. Also notable by their absence were the semi-professional agitators who attach themselves to such causes. This was no rent a mob. This seemed to the disinterested observer to be the genuine article.

In the end, all the months of campaigning achieved little. One school was saved. The bulk of the closure programme – 11 primaries and nine nurseries – will go ahead as originally planned. By the end of this month, the doomed schools will shut their doors for the last time.

The reaction to the vote in front of the city chambers was one of barely coherent anger. One mother could scarcely find words to utter to Scottish Television’s cameras. She finally came up with four. ‘The family!’ she cried desperately. ‘The community!’ But the barely coherent may speak volumes. Really she couldn’t have chosen four more resonant words. The family. The community. One supposes that, if any revival is possible in Britain, any clawback from our state of perilous disillusion, it will originate with these neglected concepts. The revival, if it comes, will start local, deeply local. It will have to be born within us and grow, somehow. The Glasgow mother, struggling for composure, managed to articulate the essentials.

But this necessary business of reconstruction, of taking responsibility for what we see and experience around us, can’t be divorced from representative democracy. That is the fluid we use; the oil for the machine which takes decisions, makes policies. Except it is no longer an effective lubricant – as we’ll see at the weekend when the shocking but unsurprising results of the European elections tumble in, possibly signalling an unparallelled crisis for democracy.

In Glasgow that spring day, the Labour councillors who run the show were unmoved by popular protest, just as the rather larger Labour group who run the show nationally were unmoved by the millions who marched against the Iraq invasion. The war happened anyway. The schools are closing anyway. What does it take? ‘Vote for me,’ they say. ‘Trust me.’ That’s representative democracy for you. Sadly, we don’t trust it any more. Trust is a busted flush. As the party of government committed us to war, as the innocents died on the killing fields of Iraq, many of the war’s supporters, impervious to the possibility that they would ever be found out, were fiddling their expenses, each dodgy receipt contributing to the great hypocrisy. Unless we’re careful this hypocrisy will prove to be more than the enemy of representative democracy. It will be the finish of it.

Look at Albert Primary. It is a poor little school in the heart of Glasgow Springburn, where a by-election will take place in the early autumn, perhaps sooner. One of the reasons given for its impending closure is that it is in a state of disrepair. Sure, but whose fault is that? A lick of paint would work wonders. But let’s not bother with the Dulux. Let’s allow Albert Primary to fall slowly apart as a physical entity, yet astonish the world with the quality of its teachers, the creativity of its pupils, the enthusiasm of its parents. Teaching is like theatre. All you need is two boards and a passion. It can work in the dingiest, clapped-out places and, given half a chance, sometimes does. If only representative democracy were functioning properly, it would start from that premise about education and work outwards.

Now then, why is Albert Primary closing this month? Not because it is in a state of disrepair – we can discount that feeble deception. No doubt the powerlessness of the people of Springburn is a factor; any school within a working-class area is fair game, an easy target. The city budget looks bad. That’s undeniable. Money has to be saved somewhere. These are probably the real reasons: the first, lack of clout, would never be admitted by those responsible, but the second, lack of money, should have been intelligently explained in order to facilitate an inclusive debate about resources, choices, priorities.

Instead of such honesty – ‘transparency’ if you prefer the word of the moment – we have had obfuscation. I listened to the official version of events, mouthed by someone whose performance on television was so unimpressive that the suit was not granted the dignity of a caption. I will quote what might loosely be termed the highlights of his statement: ‘Maximise the teaching and learning resources…improve the exam results…individual support around literacy and numeracy…once the results have bedded down…’ What is the man saying? He appears to be claiming that schools with falling rolls, such as Albert Primary, instead of providing a terrific opportunity for smaller classes and more individual teaching, are a liability; that only larger schools, detached from the immediate community, can improve the skills of the children of Springburn. Is he correct in his assertions? I wouldn’t know. He wasn’t challenged on them. His language was so cloudy that it was largely devoid of meaning. It was conference-speak.

What I’ve just related is a mere example of the condition of representative democracy. Twenty schools are closing in Glasgow this month – brutally, in the face of impassioned opposition, and without proper discussion. No one voted for these measures. No manifesto ever included them. ‘Vote for me. Trust me’. It doesn’t work any more, at least in its present discredited form: not as a slogan, nor as a political philosophy, nor even as an operational expedient. The greatest challenge we face is how to reinvent representative democracy before it perishes. It won’t be an easy assignment.