‘Democracy is nothing if it isn’t local’ – so Scottish journalist Lesley Riddoch kicked off her speech at Scottish Green Party conference over the weekend.
The situation in Scotland is significantly different to its ‘Nordic neighbours’. In Norway, one in 81 people stand for local council. In Scotland, the figure is one in over 2,000. It’s a statistic that highlights the distance between people and their democracy north of the border – and indeed in the rest of the UK too.
Although Scotland is getting greater powers, the UK as a whole is still highly centralised. In Sweden, local taxation is so prioritised that people only start paying national tax over the equivalent of around £35,000. The contrast with the UK – where almost all taxes are raised nationally – led to one Swedish academic asking Riddoch: ‘Don’t you trust yourselves?’ Why not have more power in local communities? At heart, democracy is a principle of trust in citizens to determine the outcomes that affect them.
The structure of local government is a major cause of problems in Scotland, says Riddoch. Scotland has the largest local authorities in Europe, representing 170,000 people per council. The European average is just 14,000. In Germany, that figure is 7,000. When power is so close, political inequality is much reduced, too.
In most of Europe, local councils represent each community. Yet in much of the UK, councils often cover many local communities and social units, increasing the political separation between citizens and their democracy. Councils in Scotland cover enormous areas that often have little relation to actual communities.
However, parties haven’t engaged well with localism. The devolution agenda has been conducted without the involvement of citizens. The litmus test is when you ask people ‘do you feel powerful in your local area?’ – the reply almost universally being ‘no’.
So parties need to start ‘banging that drum’ of power for local people – smaller, more localised governance, and true devolution alongside democratic reform.
By bringing ourselves into line with much of Europe in our local institutions, we can reduce the antipathy and disconnect most people feel with mainstream politics. Let’s trust ourselves.