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September 6, 2022

Poor diagnosis for democracy

In January 2018, the Scottish Government hosted a two day workshop to begin teasing out what improvements might be made to Scotland’s system of local governance. There had been a manifesto commitment to review the system and, if needed, introduce new legislation. All the usual suspects – as well as some not so usual –  had been assembled to chew the fat and make sense of the challenge that lay ahead. One in particular seemed to have a better grasp of that challenge than most. And many of the issues Prof James Mitchell highlighted back then, still seem to concern him

The Herald

IF you want to diagnose the health of Scottish democracy, there is only one man to turn to: Professor James Mitchell from Edinburgh University, a leading authority on Scottish politics. He has spent a lifetime dissecting the constitution, devolution, and the workings of the Scottish Government.

If Mitchell were a doctor, and Scottish democracy the patient, then the diagnosis isn’t good. It is not fatal, but the patient is in serious trouble.

Mitchell was a vocal advocate for Scotland’s Parliament and self-government prior to devolution and remains so, saying he wants “as much autonomy in Scotland as possible”. But Scottish politics is “immature”.

If we became independent, we would do so with a “dysfunctional model” of Government. The SNP puts campaigning before governing; it is “fundamentalist”, a “mirror image” of Conservatives.

Local democracy is “worse than pre-devolution, which is staggering”; Government accountability is “utterly inadequate”; and “debate too parochial” with everything “viewed through a constitutionalist lens”.

“The model of democracy we’ve adopted is unimaginative and follows Westminster too closely,” Mitchell says.


POWER is “centralised” in Edinburgh, diminishing councils. “Cuts have been imposed”, and councils are “basically prevented from raising their own funds. That’s very harmful”. The Scottish Government “dictates priorities leaving local authorities with far less discretion”.

Says Mitchell: “Essentially, they’ve become administrative agents of central government. They basically do what they’re told and money is often tied to that … local knowledge has been sucked out of the system.”

The Scottish Government has “essentially devolved penury, devolved the difficult decision, and kept as much of the money as possible. From a public policy and democratic point of view, that’s really bad, very worrying … When it comes to local democracy, we’re an outlier, we’re weird”.

Regarding centralisation, “the only other part of Europe that’s like Scotland is England”. Mitchell adds: “We’re not only seeing centralisation to the Scottish Government, but centralisation within Government. Cabinet, from what I gather, doesn’t operate as a proper forum for debate. That’s very unhealthy … ‘presidential’ isn’t entirely the wrong word, it’s not formally presidential, but there’s a degree of that..

Constant campaigning

“OUR First Minister is more engaged in constant campaigning, with a referendum in mind, than governing. We don’t have the governing mindset which requires openness, compromise, listening, engaging. There’s a kind of control freakery. Everything is presented in very sharp terms, primary colours. Politics is often not black and white, it’s grey. That gets lost in the campaigning mindset.

“That’s sad because our democracy isn’t the democracy many who campaigned for devolution envisaged. The Parliament hasn’t really lived up to those hopes and expectations. It’s a very Westminster-style Parliament. Why in God’s name did we adopt First Minister’s Questions, the worst feature of Westminster?”

Mitchell adds: “I don’t think the Scottish Parliament is as significant a Parliament vis-a-vis the executive as the House of Commons. Committees are nowhere near as powerful or effective as committees down there. We’re worse than Westminster and it’s bad enough. Committees are too controlled by the leadership of the political parties. They aren’t properly resourced. We need a much more assertive Parliament. It’s all about Government’s empowerment.”


MITCHELL goes on: “Before we start talking about more powers being devolved, let’s sort out what we’ve got – make it more democratic. It’s not good enough to say ‘it’s all Westminster’s fault and everything will be wonderful when we’re independent’. There’s a hell of a lot we could and must do now, because if Scotland became independent tomorrow with this model you can rest assured it would be very dysfunctional. I don’t understand why the SNP isn’t doing more to create a better system which would make the transition to independence more appealing to many.”

Mitchell – a strong advocate of devolution – believes “the creation of the Scottish Parliament was a major step forward … I remember vividly what it was like before devolution. We’ve come a long way”.

The sea change in Scottish politics came in 2011. The SNP majority, and resulting referendum, meant “we really moved into full-scale campaigning. Governing gets pushed aside. Nicola Sturgeon is a phenomenal campaigner, an amazingly effective communicator – the best in the UK. However, I wouldn’t say that about her ability in Government”.

He adds: “We’re not focusing on everyday things that affect people’s lives – that must be central to democracy.”

Constitutional obsession across all parties, says Mitchell, has created “parochialism”, adding: “Debate has shrunk to the constitution, everything is viewed through a constitutionalist lens.”

He notes how some SNP figures can “take any issue” and see it from a constitutional perspective. “It’s remarkable, frightening, absurd – but also rather effective.”

Scotland also “tends to measure everything” against London. “We don’t really raise our eyes,” says Mitchell. He finds it ironic that “we love to talk about Scotland being a European nation” but followed the Westminster model at Holyrood rather than “taking seriously how European parliaments operate”. Talk of the “Scandinavian model” is also “very crude … there’s a tendency to say ‘we’re not England, we’re going to do things differently’, but sometimes there are occasions when we need to do what’s done in England because it’s appropriate. There’s an immaturity”. He adds: “We need more grown-up, confident politics.”

Mitchell calls the constitution “the Upas tree of Scottish politics”. In myth, the Upas tree kills all nearby plants. “We need to stop presenting everything in binary, crude terms. It’s irritating to hear SNP people say it’s undemocratic [for the UK Government to deny another referendum] – and I’ve some sympathy for that – but what I’ve no sympathy for is the idea we just have a vote on independence. There are other options. We need to broaden out the constitutional question.” Scottish Labour must “address this” and provide alternatives “because if the alternative is the status quo or independence, it’s not giving us much choice”.

Damage to independence

MITCHELL says “there’s logic” to criticism that by constantly campaigning the SNP has failed to govern well and therefore damaged independence, as governing Scotland better would see support rise.

The SNP is “a very cautious Government that’s hiding behind the constitutional question. It is fearful that if it was to do many of the things needed it would lose support”. Many problems facing Scotland require hard decisions that “come at a financial cost in terms of shifting resources, and a political cost because to do that someone’s going to lose. This Government doesn’t want to do things that would bring it into conflict with the middle classes, which it needs to win independence. But sometimes Government has to do unpopular things”.

This strategy “is building up problems that would make an independent Scotland incredibly difficult to govern”.

A nation will “only ever be a true democracy when you’ve greater equality”. Mitchell says: “I don’t think [the SNP] is progressive. There are progressive elements. The leadership probably at heart wants to be progressive but it feels constrained, timid. It’s not as progressive as the rhetoric.”

The SNP “has to be forced” at times to act progressively. “It’s a bit of a blancmange, it’s quite soft and can be manipulated. But my worry about manipulated parties is that they’re most likely manipulated by the powerful.”

Mitchell says the SNP has changed significantly. “Since 2014, it’s become very absolutist. There’s a new fundamentalism. The SNP needs to go away and think about what it actually wants. At the moment, it’s purely sloganistic. It talks about rejoining Europe as an independent state, while the rest of the UK is out. That’s very difficult to imagine. How do we do that, particularly if you believe, as the SNP does, that London is governed by crazy people like Boris Johnson, as that would mean [independence would be like] a hard Brexit. The SNP has stuck its head in the sand.”

Brexit is separatism

MITCHELL says “the UK has become separatist in its relations with the EU with Brexit”. “This has unavoidable consequences for an independent Scotland. Hence, Scotland finds itself in an invidious, if not impossible, situation – caught between a choice of two unions with either choice being damaging. There’s no doubt leaving the UK would be far more damaging that the current situation.

“The Conservatives and SNP are mirror images of each other – both fundamentalist, nationalist parties, unwilling to consider the essential interdependencies that will always exist within Britain. The rise of fundamentalism and demise of pragmatism is key to understanding the current unhappy situation. Each adopts hardline rhetoric and cuts out what will inevitably have to be faced – serious negotiations.” If “SNP rhetoric is correct then an independent Scotland would face a very difficult relationship with its main trading partner. The SNP needs to present the rest of the UK in a very negative light but in doing so undermines its case for independence as this would suggest very difficult negotiations”. The SNP’s embrace of Europe in the 1980s was to underscore that if independence happened then “relations between Scotland and England would remain pretty smooth. Now it has reversed its logic. It supports the European Union but that means we’d have a massive border problem. It’s great rhetoric – ‘let’s all join Europe’ – and I’m very strongly in favour of getting back into Europe, but the only route, whether you believe in independence or not, is through the whole UK rejoining”.

The alternative is a “border problem similar to Ireland-Northern Ireland. Trade issues are horrendous. The SNP is right to say the context [around independence] has changed [because of Brexit], but [Brexit] also simultaneously undermines the case for independence. We’ll always need good relationships with our nearest neighbour”.


MITCHELL turns to extremism. “The treatment of journalists by some political activists is very worrying – that’s scary in a democracy,” he says. “We need a strong media. Some of the biggest stories – like the ferries fiasco – come from journalists. I’m not sure Parliament would have picked that up.” Attacks, he adds, come “from all sides”. Abuse is “putting people off politics. It’s unhealthy for democracy”.

Politicians have shown “a lack of responsibility” in not condemning abuse immediately and unequivocally. Politicians also go too far in their own language calling opponents “fascist or undemocratic”. Mitchell adds: “Most people see through this and find it off-putting. Political leaders should refrain from presenting opponents as all bad and show a bit more respect. In every party there’s ugly elements. There’s also decent people. We should stop the crude, simplistic black and white [rhetoric]. Political leadership has been very disappointing.”

Government powers

CONCERNS have been raised that some charities feel financially dependent on Government and so limit criticism. “That’s unhealthy. Some of these organisations were far too close to Labour in the past. In a very short space of time, they’re far too close to the SNP.”

There has been criticism that although the SNP has limited powers, it’s been reluctant to use what powers it has to deal with Scotland’s problems. Instead, it’s accused of shifting responsibility to Westminster. “It’s classic blame game,” Mitchell says. “We’ve a combination of immaturity plus real challenges.” The SNP is “clearly not using the range of powers available – there’s much more that can be done. They’ve got powers, not as many as they might have, but certainly more than previously”.

When it comes to how London and Edinburgh portray relations, “the emphasis publicly is on conflict”. Between 2007, when the SNP took power, and 2011, when it won its majority, Edinburgh-London relations were “pretty good. Since 2011, it’s gone the other way”. However, both governments “exaggerate differences”.

The Johnson factor

MODERN Conservatism has changed the political climate, however. “One reason there’s a demand for independence is the understandable perception I share that the London Government is dysfunctional in the extreme. The fact you’ve someone like Johnson as Prime Minister is a manifestation of that on stilts.”

To fix the dysfunction, “we’ve looked to [devolving power] as if that alone is the answer. It’s part of the answer. The bit we’ve neglected is reforming the state as a whole”. He adds: “What gives me hope is there’s common agreement emerging that something needs done about the UK and our centralised system of government in London.

“We can’t carry on with a system where a party takes power at Westminster and everybody else is out. When the Tories are in they can ignore large chunks of the country and get reelected. There’s something fundamentally wrong with that.”


MITCHELL cites the German Bundesrat – Germany’s upper house representing the federal states. “It’s an authoritative voice. It can stop things,” he adds. Mitchell raises British federalism: England broken up into smaller regions like Cornwall or Yorkshire so each part of Britain is roughly the same size, with the same clout – and then reforming the House of Lords with members from federal regions elected by PR. This would mean “you couldn’t have central government in London riding roughshod over devolution as we’re seeing post-Brexit. Scottish Labour needs to start thinking like this.” He adds: “Maybe I’m overly optimistic but we may look back and think ‘God, that Johnson period was bloody mad but it woke us up.”

Scotland will still be affected by decisions in London even if we’re independent, just as London remains affected by European decisions. “Independence won’t insulate Scots from decisions made by the Treasury or Bank of England,” says Mitchell. Independence, therefore, risks losing “an effective voice” in London, although he adds “the London Government at the moment just ignores us. But if there’s a change of Government that wouldn’t necessarily be the case”.

The Sturgeon plan

MITCHELL is highly critical of the SNP’s “Supreme Court and de facto referendum” plan. “It’s just madness.” He feels the Scottish Government knows its chances of winning in court are “limited and that’s why there’s this back-up”. However, “there’s no such thing as a de facto referendum, there’s elections and there’s referendums. You can go into an election as a single-issue party – essentially what the SNP is saying – but that doesn’t make it a referendum. You can’t change the rules of democracy. It seems a function of understandable frustration that they’re not making progress to get the referendum but it’s not very mature, and it’s dangerous. It’s us, voters, who decide what we vote on.”

Under Sturgeon’s plan, getting less than 50 per cent at the next election would mean “she’d failed. It’s an odd thing to say”. The SNP should rather maintain pressure on London through its “high levels of support. Sturgeon’s odd course has taken a lot of pressure off the UK Government”. Westminster would be “mistaken” to “think the Sturgeon strategy is bound to fail and leave the SNP high and dry. That may happen but there’s little doubt the SNP won’t disappear and pressure will recover and probably grow again in the not too distant future under another leader”. Despite criticism of SNP tactics, he says “it’s incumbent on others to come up with some kind of response” given the size of support for independence. “A significant minority is essentially saying ‘we’re so pissed off that we’ll vote to leave this state’. In any other country that would ring alarm bells that something is fundamentally wrong.”

He feels Conservatives have “absolutely” endangered the union by making it seem a “prison”. “The respect agenda is dead. This suits both the SNP and Tories but ultimately nothing gets done. But there’s no doubt you’ve people in London clearly out of touch with what’s going on up here or don’t care. That’s certainly true of Johnson and may be true with his successor. Compromise needs to come from both sides and we’re getting damn all from either at the moment. What we’re seeing from London is encouraging Sturgeon to behave this way. It’s counterproductive for her, but I understand why. The Conservatives aren’t the party of the past, previous Prime Ministers would never have behaved this way. It’s dangerous for them.”

Scotland “shares illness” when it comes to politics “with the rest of the UK”. Mitchell concludes: “If I were a doctor, I’d say ‘if we don’t do something it’s going to get worse, it’s going to get really bad’. It’s not too late to intervene. There’s still life, and compared to democracy in other parts of the world we’re incredibly fortunate. There’s elements of our democracy that are flawed, but there’s no way we aren’t democratic.”