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July 1, 2009

Scottish Civil Society

LPL was represented at a meeting last week to discuss how Scottish civil society – the third sector along with churches, unions, civic groups etc- could exercise greater influence on political life. The journalist Ian MacWhirter pointed out that Scottish civil society has achieved devolution – ‘The most radical reform of the British Constitution since universal suffrage’

Ian MacWhirter, The Herald

Ten years ago this week, as we waited for the Queen formally to open the Scottish Parliament, I was still in the throws of moving back from London, where I’d been working in Westminster for over a decade. Well, it was a great national moment: the restoration of a parliament in Scotland after 300 years, a new Scotland, a great constitutional adventure. Wasn’t long before I was wondering if I’d made the right decision. Holyrood had been launched in ignominy and scandal. Any sense of national renewal was occluded by rows about expenses, poor-quality MSPs, irrelevant debates, indifferent legislation and financial irresponsibility. Politicians at Westminster sucked their teeth and lamented the failed opportunities.

Ten years on, the situation is almost exactly the reverse. The Scottish Parliament seems a model modern legislature, with its open and transparent expenses regime, its pre-legislative committees, fixed-term parliaments and proportional representation. It is Westminster that is mired in expenses scandals, accusations of economic mismanagement, budgetary irresponsibility and legislative irrelevance. MPs in Westminster, with their duck houses, property speculation and multiple jobs have become national pariahs, hardly daring to go out alone in their constituencies.

No-one is more surprised by this turn of events than MSPs, who aren’t used to regarding themselves as exemplars of probity and competence. But, somehow, I don’t think it will go to their heads. Holyrood was purpose-built to prevent elected members turning into arrogant, self-interested courtiers. They’re much too busy, for a start.

Most commentators believe Westminster will now have to import many of the practices of Holyrood if it is to restore public respect, most obviously over allowances and second jobs. Elective dictatorship by No 10 is under serious challenge, and Holyrood now gives constitutional reformers a model to work from. In fact, the revival of Westminster was always an important part of the Holyrood project. Constitutional reform was primarily about restoring the sovereign right of the Scottish people to choose how they are governed, but it was also about breaking the Westminster monopoly of power, about bringing politics closer to the people, creating a legislative space for new political ideas.

Of course, Holyrood isn’t perfect by any means. It is still underpowered in important respects, especially over the economy, though this may be about to change following the Calman Report. The parliament hasn’t been tested yet by economic recession and the forthcoming cuts in spending will be challenging for a legislature that has not had to worry about how to raise the money it spends. There is still a strong hangover of petty party tribalism which creates divisions between the main parties in areas where they don’t really exist, such as the environment, health service reform and PFI. But devolution has, by any standards, been a significant achievement.

It has made a difference to people’s lives by passing legislation on everything from the smoking ban to free personal care. It has largely assuaged the Scottish grievance, and stopped Scots blaming London for everything that goes wrong here. Amazingly, it has helped restore trust in politics, as demonstrated by opinion polls such as last month’s Populus poll in the Times confirming that 70% of Scots believe devolution has been good for Scotland. Going around Scotland, even in the recession, you do get a sense that things are getting better.

And then there’s Andy Murray. No, the tennis phenomenon’s performance cannot be put down to the Scottish Parliament. But notice how there hasn’t been the usual quarrel over whether Murray is Scottish or British. Everyone knows he’s Scottish – even the folk on Henman Hill have pointedly refrained from changing its name to Murray Mound. It’s just not an issue any more. Some still gripe about Murray being hailed as British if he wins and Scottish if he loses, but not with any conviction. The fact of Scottish self-government, albeit limited, has made Scots more secure in their identity and less bothered about perceived slights to national honour.

It is very rare in politics that something actually works and we should not it let it pass unremarked, even if we don’t start popping BBC champagne corks in celebration. Devolution has been an achievement for that amorphous body called “civil society” – the various non-party organisations and public-spirited individuals who launched the Scottish Constitutional Convention 20 years ago.

Curious, then, that large parts of civil society apparently feel excluded. Last week I was invited to speak at a forum organised by the Scottish Council for Voluntary Organisations with representatives from trades unions, civic groups, churches and NGOs. It has been looking into the “crisis of Scottish civil society”. Many people in the voluntary sector seem to believe that Holyrood has been taken over by politicians who have edged them out of influence and public recognition. Well, the trouble with parliaments is that they tend to attract politicians, so that’s hardly surprising.

Of course, politicians have their faults, like democracy itself, but we shouldn’t confuse the institution with the people who are elected to it. Elected members in Westminster and Holyrood are all drawn more or less from the same political gene pool: law, teaching, local government, civil service, trades unions, voluntary organisations. It’s not that the ones in Westminster are genetically inferior or innately corrupt; it’s just that the Westminster system of parliamentary democracy encourages MPs to behave badly. To that extent, the shame-faced dishonourable members are right to complain: “But it’s the system that’s to blame.” The point about constitutions is to create structures that bring out the best in people, not the worst.

No, my concern about Scotland is not that civil society is dead, but that the Scottish media is in danger of dying. The indigenous Scottish press is losing readers; STV is giving up any pretence of public-service broadcasting and the cash-strapped BBC has lost the will and the means to lead political debate in Scotland. The Scottish Broadcasting Commission’s call for a Scottish digital channel has been ignored by Westminster, despite unanimous backing in Holyrood. Increasingly, Scots see themselves through the prism of an anglo-centric media which nods in the direction of devolution occasionally but really doesn’t understand life outside the M25.

Somehow, I don’t think this week’s tenth anniversary of devolution is going to be celebrated in the UK media for what it is – the most radical and the most successful reform of the British constitution since the universal suffrage. A peaceful revolution.