The referendum on independence for Scotland has been celebrated as turning point political event which has engaged millions of voters in careful reflection and considered debate about the future of Scotland. Equally there are many who have seen a limited debate, full of bull and bluster and half-truths that gave an impression being stronger on symbolism than substance.
Most appear to agree that the political dynamic of change started in Scotland is likely to spread throughout the United Kingdom whether the final result is a yes or no. How could we ensure that the continuing debate grapples with real issues that should drive a governance debate for citizens living in a complex, post-industrial society, grappling with an uncertain future in a globalised world? Let me offer five principles to govern future discussion.
The first principle should be that citizens need to lead rather than political elites. The study of political reform reveals one hard lesson and that is if political elites drive the choices they tend to choose options that they calculate serve their interests. Governing arrangements, new voting procedures or even issues put to a referendum are determined primarily by calculations about whether their party or leadership will be the beneficiaries. For that reason reforms designed and delivered by political elites often end up disappointing citizens as they fail to deliver the positive change wanted by the public.
The second principle is any governance solution in the twenty first century has to be multilevel in character. Interdependence is a reality that cannot be wished away and our lives are now more integrated with other citizens of the globe in social, economic and cultural terms. Exercising our democratic rights in that context is a more complex challenge than the democracy imagined by eighteenth and nineteenth thinkers. For a lot of the time the best that can be hoped for is influence rather than control but having influence is vital. We need an opportunity for our representatives to sway European and international decisions. But then we need capacity for decision at national but crucially at the local level. Too many tax-raising, policy and economic decisions are currently in the hands of a Westminster elite and if there is an unequivocal message from the Scottish referendum debate it is that such a situation is no longer acceptable or indeed effective as a form of governing.
That thought leads directly to the third principle: subsidiarity. Let’s not ask what we can devolve but rather ask what we need to centralise to either national or supranational levels. The arguments for greater localism are overwhelming. First and most important circumstances and needs are different in different localities and the capacity to make the right decisions to get the right economic, social and environmental policies depends on an ability to decide and act at various sub-national levels. Second if we are to regain trust and engagement in democratic political processes the local provides a more viable terrain than national or European level. There are fewer barriers to access facing citizens at the local level, more opportunities to mix social media and face-to-face discussion and greater prospects of sequencing direct democracy initiatives and deliberative forums alongside more traditional representative decision-making. Third when it comes to decisions about wicked long-term issues the local arena can be one where trade-offs can be delivered. When making decisions at sub-national level there is a greater capacity to give the benefit of the doubt to decision makers, thus providing more leeway to tackle difficult and complex issues.
The fourth principle should be there is no ‘one size fits all’ when it comes to institutional solutions. So if all we get is one person shouting the only answer is an English parliament and another calling for powerful city regions and another yelling devolution for Cornwall we should not be surprised. The socio-economic geography of the UK is complex and its governance requires units for decision-making to match. City regions may be a good fit in some but not all locations and we should be worried if the governing map that emerges after our national and local discussions is not very neat. A good solution is likely to be messy in institutional terms.
The fifth principle should be that all these governing options need to match the demands of democratic accountability. There are only complex answers to that issue that also ensure that minority rights and freedoms are protected but it a question that cannot be ducked. Proponents of city regions for example appear to make their arguments largely on pragmatic grounds in terms of the economic dynamism or economies of scale that will be achieved. Managerial or technical arguments are not enough and any new governing solution has to answer the leading question of twenty first century citizens: how can we have may say and how can we hold decision-makers to account? That question was in the shadows for much of the Scottish independence debate but it needs to be brought to the fore in the future.