Saturday 2 August 2014

Is there a democratic deficit in Scotland?

Independence supporters often argue that Scotland ought to vote for independence because there is a democratic deficit. What they mean by this is that Scotland usually votes Labour, but sometimes gets a UK Government that does not reflect this choice. Sometimes we are governed by a party that Scotland as a whole did not vote for. This is undoubtedly true. But is it a good argument for seeking independence?
One problem with the argument is that this situation is pretty much universal. In every democratic country there are parts that sometimes don’t get the government of their choice. Texas usually votes Republican, but sometimes ends up with the Democrats in power. Moreover, if Scotland became independent the same scenario would recur. Shetland and Orkney usually vote for the Lib Dems, but would most likely end up with a Labour or an SNP Government in Holyrood. These islanders could legitimately say that it hardly matters how they vote as the Central Belt will always decide who rules Scotland.

When nationalists say that there is a democratic deficit do they mean that there is always a democratic deficit? Well there was no democratic deficit when Scottish voters voted for the Labour Government in 1997, 2005 and 2010 and got just that. The SNP did not cease campaigning for independence during those years.  So what would satisfy them with regard to this democratic deficit? Would they be satisfied if the other parts of the UK always voted the same way as Scotland? Does anyone seriously think that nationalists would give up their goal of independence under these circumstances? Of course they would not. The SNP want independence not because of a democratic deficit. That’s just an argument the SNP use to try to persuade gullible Labour voters to vote for a party and policies that are contrary to the traditions and ethos of the Labour party.

What’s the best way to deal with the fact that parts of a country don’t always get the government that they want? Secession isn’t the answer for this would lead logically to endless fragmentation. Every constituency that doesn’t win could declare itself an independent country. If you go back far enough many of them once were. The best way to deal with the fact that central government does not always reflect local wishes is devolution. If central government controls only macroeconomic policy, foreign affairs and those issues that the whole population has in common, the wishes of the parts of the country, like Scotland, that did not vote for it can still be reflected in devolved parliaments.

The democratic deficit in Scotland is therefore alleviated by the fact that we have our own parliament. We may sometimes lose an election in Westminster, but this is compensated for by Holyrood controlling the issues that affect only Scotland.  Our views are represented in Westminster at the UK level, so we have a say in issues that affect everyone. We would, of course, lose this say if we voted for independence and have no influence over economic that would still affect us.

Frequently the Westminster Government is exactly the one we voted for. But we have influence even when it isn’t. Without Scottish MPs, David Cameron would have won an absolute majority and would not have needed to form a coalition with the Lib Dems. But the most important thing to realise is that even if the Government in Westminster does not reflect Scotland’s wishes, it hardly matters. Devolution means that the UK government does not decide the issues that only affect Scotland, Holyrood does. There are whole swathes of Scottish life on which MPs from other parts of the UK have no say whatsoever. At the moment these include, health, education, law and order, agriculture, forestry and fisheries. Moreover, the powers of the Scottish Parliament are going to massively increased.

This situation means that while English representatives have no say in vast areas of Scottish life, the reverse situation does not obtain.  Scottish representatives influence not only Scottish matters in Holyrood, but also English matters at Westminster. Far then from Scotland having a democratic deficit, we actually have a democratic surplus. Imagine if England narrowly voted for the Conservatives, but because of Welsh and Scottish MPs got a Labour Government. That Government would in effect rule England for they don’t have their own parliament. But the reverse situation does not obtain precisely because we have our own parliament. It’s not therefore Scotland that has a democratic deficit, but England.

The major democratic deficit that exists in the UK at present is the lack of devolution in England. We can vote on their issues, but they can’t vote on ours. A further democratic deficit is that devolution doesn’t extend far enough. Someone from Shetland is still ruled by a distant power that will always outvote him, whether Scotland is independent or not. What Shetland needs is local democracy that brings real power to local communities. The same can be said for everywhere in the UK, whether it is Aberdeenshire, Hampshire, Gwent or Antrim. Of course, none of this will persuade nationalists. They are not interested in local power, but in creating a new nation state. But for people, like me, who live far from Edinburgh and Glasgow being outnumbered by the Central Belt is no different from being outnumbered by England. The solution to the democratic deficit in the UK is to devolve power to all four parts of Britain then to devolve it still further to all of the parts of those parts.   

Democracy is neither about always getting the government that I voted for, nor about always getting the government which the place where I live voted for.  Democracy is just as much about losing as it is about winning and accepting graciously that sometimes my views are not the views of the majority.  The most important ability an electorate has is the ability to kick out a government.  Imagine if Scotland had always got the Westminster Government of our choice in recent times. That would have meant permanent Labour Government. There would have been no change. We would be living in something like a one party state. Whichever party you usually support be very grateful that sometimes it loses and gets kicked out. If this did not happen we really would have a democratic deficit.