The state of Scottish democracy

Democracy values everyone equally even if the majority do not.

 – Lady Brenda Hale

Professor James Mitchell gave the inaugural State of Scottish Democracy lecture, hosted by the Electoral Reform Society Scotland, in Glasgow last week.  Professor Mitchell, Chair in Public Policy at Edinburgh University and an expert on the constitution, assessed the health of democracy in Scotland today.  STAGE LEFT was there.

James Mitchell, Professor of Public Policy at the University of Edinburgh (left), with Willie Sullivan, Senior Director of the Electoral Reform Society Scotland.


25 years since devolution legislation was presented to the Westminster parliament, the UK Supreme Court is due – this Wednesday 23 November – to announce its decision on the independence referendum case brought by the Scottish government.  

The ruling is bound to excite strong reaction from all sides of the debate.  So, before we are all consumed – again – by the seemingly perpetual stalemate between YES and NO, it was refreshing to hear a more nuanced voice aiming to broaden the debate beyond the issue of our country’s constitutional status.

Mitchell began his talk by showing some recent examples of over-dramatic approaches to the subject.  Book titles combining the words crisis and democracy seem to abound. 

He also noted a recent unwelcome trend towards curtailing democracy as if the people – some with ugly opinions – can’t be trusted: demophobia.  Yet, he argued, this is the very point at which we should increase the engagement and involvement of people in their electoral systems.

Crisis – what crisis?

Looking more closely at the messy reality of Scotland’s democratic journey, Mitchell saw both progress and failure in the state’s accountability to the people.

His starting point was the 1990’s and the Constitutional Convention, the alliance of parties and civic groups that framed the devolution settlement, paving the way to the Scottish parliament.

He praised the openness and radicalism of their deliberations – a rich debate on representation.  It was especially important that the new set-up should be proportionally elected; that it should bring equality for women and be more inclusive ethnically; that it should offer better scrutiny and that, unlike the antiquated Commons, it should work in modern conditions.

In contrast, the UK Conservative government of the time was patently unable to provide Scotland with proper representation – demands from north of the border were neither heard nor met.  He thought this wasn’t just the Tories – even if a party sympathetic to Scottish interests had been in power at Westminster, there would still have been a lack of accountability inherent in the system.

And then came Holyrood. A great milestone but it was not, as Donald Dewar, its founding father, put it, an end in itself but a means to a greater end.

The improvement on first-past-the-post and the value of each vote counting would not magically lead to a more democratic society.  Has Holyrood, since its inception, been able to advance the notion of democracy as not just an event but a process?  

For Mitchell, the main weakness has been at the local level. The Scottish government has introduced powers to itself but failed to enhance those of city and rural government.  The great hope in early stages of Holyrood was to empower local representation, but the promised parity of esteem hasn’t happened.  Instead there’s been a reluctance, to the point of disrespect, to share power and resources with non-centralised institutions.

Votes count, but resources decide the outcome in the end – Stein Rokkan

Our practice of democracy has to go further and examine why power is limited, why it fails to engage more of the population.  Several key factors are evident: we cannot expect a society unequal in terms of wealth, health and education to be equal in representation. Also, certain interest groups have private access to power while others are pushed out.

Mitchell referred to the verdict of Nigel Smith (the most influential political campaigner you’ve never heard of) in his posthumously published pamphlet on the Scottish parliament: Partial success, could do better.

The professor ended his pithy and punchy lecture with a call for an audit of democracy to keep fresh ideas coming.  If not, he feared, those with undemocratic intentions will control the agenda.

A democratic event in itself

The event itself was suitably open and accessible – Mitchell spoke for a little over half an hour, allowing lots of time for contributions from the floor.  

These included Bob Thomson of the Jimmy Reid Foundation who said he couldn’t see how democracy could begin to flourish under a state with a hereditary monarch as its head.  He went on to decry the narrowness of views acceptable to the SNP leadership, adding that Nicola Sturgeon’s regime suppressed divergent opinions with a zeal Stalin would have envied!

Another speaker wondered if Holyrood’s reluctance to share funds and powers was a forced echo of Westminster’s domineering, parsimonious and begrudging attitude towards Scotland in general.

Others wanted to mark the crucial role of housing in local engagement and how tenants’ involvement has been steadily eroded.  When most people lived in a council house they had more say than with present-day Housing Associations and private landlords.  There were also calls, echoed by the main speaker, for our universities to pioneer new ways to regenerate Scottish democracy.

The undemocratic elephant in the room

Whilst it was good to focus on our own back yard, I felt the lecture downplayed the autocracy of Westminster.  Apart from his refusal to recognise Scotland’s right to choose its own future, our unelected Prime Minister is planning to put before the Commons the Retained EU Law Bill.  This will do away with consent from Cardiff and Edinburgh for laws which have been key to the devolution settlement.  It comes on top of the UK Internal Market Act which allows the Tory government to unilaterally neuter the remit of the devolved parliaments.  These kinds of attacks are far more damaging to the health of the Scottish state than any internal matters.

Finally, I was taken with the evening’s surroundings, which trailed a kind of democratic ambience of their own.  The main hall of Govan’s Pearce Institute exudes an aura of faded civic participation not often seen these days.  There we were, in the frayed splendour of a shared municipal zone, with echoing acoustic, draughty space and wood panelling, dominated by a magnificent rank of organ pipes, listening earnestly to a speech and giving our thoughtful responses.   How charming; how old-school!

Not so old – it brought to mind, just eight years ago, scores of such events in such places held during the indyref1 campaign.  Now that, I’d suggest, was democracy in action!

Paul Bassett


November 2022

A version of this post was published on Bylines Scotland:


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