On 18 September voters in Scotland will choose whether Scotland remains part of the United Kingdom or becomes an independent country. I am approaching this choice from the perspective of how best to democratise political and economic power and for me, the past 40 years of British politics and the recent financial crisis informs this choice. During this period the UK has undergone a massive transformation in the architecture of political and economic power.

As James Meek argues in his new book, Private Island. Why Britain now belongs to someone else, in a little over a generation the bones and sinews of the British economy – rail, energy, water, postal services, municipal housing – have been sold to remote, unaccountable private owners. In a long essay in the Guardian on Friday, Meek argues that,

By packaging British citizens up and selling them, sector by sector, to investors, the government makes it possible to keep traditional taxes low or even cut them. By moving from a system where public services are supported by progressive general taxation to a system where they are supported exclusively by the flat fees people pay to use them, they move from a system where the rich are obliged to help the poor to a system where the less well-off enable services that the rich get for what is, to them, a trifling sum. The commodity that makes water and power cables and airports valuable to an investor, foreign or otherwise, is the people who have no choice but to use them. We have no choice but to pay the price the toll-keepers charge. We are a human revenue stream; we are being made tenants in our own land, defined by the string of private fees we pay to exist here.”

All of this was forecast by Jimmy Reid in his famous rectorial address – Alienation – in 1972.

Let me right at the outset define what I mean by alienation. it is the cry of men who feel themselves the victims of blind economic forces beyond their control. it is the frustration of ordinary people excluded from the process of decision making. The feeling of despair and hopelessness that pervades people who feel with justification that they have no real say in shaping or determining their own destinies. Many may not have rationalised it; may not even understand, may not be able to articulate it. But they feel it.” (1)

Little has changed. Were Jimmy Reid to be alive today, much of his diagnosis would still stand. Despite the establishment of the Scottish Parliament in 1999 and the much good work it has done, the bigger picture remains one of elite capture of the democratic process, the alienation of the citizen, the cynicism of the ruling class and the impoverishment of the public realm. The threadbare democracy that passes for the UK Parliament is now in terminal decline – in hock to the hopes, fears, aspirations and prejudices of small numbers of voters in marginal constituencies. The ambitions and policies of the main political parties are now compromised by this narrowing of this bandwidth of political discourse.

In the film Scotland Yet a succession of speakers lament the failure of the Labour Government of 1997-2010 to use its majority to democratise Britain – to abolish the House of Lords, the aristocracy and the Monarchy, introduce a fair voting system, decentralise governance, and democratise the economy. Instead, the UK continued on a path where political and economic power is now no longer in the hands of the people but is exercised instead by unaccountable private interests of the kind identified by James Meek. The UK is now the most unequal country in the EU as the graph below illustrates (source: Eurostat Bulletin 29/2014).

In December 2011, at an EU summit in Brussels, the UK refused to back a new EU treaty to enshrine new rules on deficits and debt to chart a course out of the Eurozone crisis. As the novelist, Ian Rankin, noted in an acerbic tweet, the City of London exerts a disproportionate influence in political choices.

I believe in the capacity of people and communities to organise themselves in a manner that best addresses their needs. This potential has, for decades been crushed and demeaned by those who, on sunny days, pose as reforming politicians.

Readers of this blog will know of my interest in democratising land, the economy and society. These goals are what inform my choice on 18 September.

The referendum campaign, as highlighted in the Scotland Yet film, has energised wide swathes of the electorate. Whatever way the vote goes, this desire to play a more active role in how we are governed will not die. But there is a danger it may slowly wither away.

I want a Scotland with radically greater democratic control of land, economic affairs and politics. But I have no great faith in the state to deliver this. The nation-state is a relatively modern invention and, as I highlighted at the outset, it is increasingly irrelevant to the challenges we face in communities and around the world. Indeed, it could be argued that, given the ease with which it can be captured, it is actively hostile to genuine democracy.

And that is why the choice of yes or no doesn’t adequately addresses the great challenges of our time – peace, environmental degradation, human rights and social justice. The era of the nation state is, in my view over. It is a redundant  idea. But it is not going to disappear in a hurry and thus I am interested in any opportunity that provides an opportunity to completely rethinking governance.

In an ideal world I want to see power located at a local level with authority for confederal relationships at regional and national levels being derived from the people themselves rather than through the apparatus of state power. These ideas are encapsulated in the political theories of libertarian municipalism and democratic confederalism. (2)

Confederalism, in particular, is a far more realistic framework within which challenges such as climate change can be addressed since it proceeds from the principle of co-operation and mutual interests rather than individual state interests. In the medium term, the future for the British Isles is in strong confederal relationships. Ditto for Europe and the world.

But confederalism is not on the ballot paper on September 18th. The choice is a binary one between independence and the status quo. It has become clear to me that the means by which to build a society within which economic and gender inequality can be reduced, where citizens can be empowered, and accountable, efficient and democratic organs of governance created – is by voting yes.

It should not need stated, of course, that such ambitions are not guaranteed by voting yes. But it is more likely that they can be advanced with the powers of independence than by sticking with the corrupted state that calls itself the UK. The only way to tap the energy that has emerged during this campaign is to provide it with the channels along which it can flow freely.

That is why I will be voting yes.

NOTES

(1) Alienation. Glasgow University Rectorial Address by Jimmy Reid, 1972. Copy here (1.3Mb pdf)

(1) See, for example, Murray Bookchin, the Meaning of Confederalism and Abdullah Ocalan, Democratic Confederalism (1.7Mb pdf)

On Tuesday this week, the Court of Session published its opinion by Lord Tyre on a petition brought by East Renfrewshire Council (4.2Mb pdf) seeking authority to build a school on common good land in Cowan Park, Barrhead. Given past blogs on the topic of common good and, in particular, the controversy over the Portobello Park proposals, I felt it would be useful to provide a brief response and commentary on this latest decision by the Courts.

East Renfrewshire Council plans to build a new high school in Cowan Park, Barrhead. The park consists of three distinct parcels of land (see map below). The first – areas 13/4 and the northernmost E157/3 form the original Cowan Park. James Cowan bequeathed £10,000 in 1910 to provide a park and directed his trustees to purchase the land and convey it to the Town Council to be held in “perpetuity as a public park … for the use and enjoyment of the inhabitants of the Burgh of Barrhead in all time coming.” In 1969 part of this original park (the northernmost area E157/3) was conveyed to the County Council and is the site of the current Barrhead High School.

An additional two parcels of land were added to the park in acquisitions by the County Council in 1969 (E157/3 to the south outlined in blue) and the Town Council in 1969 (area 13/8 outlined in yellow).

Of these parcels, only area 13/4 is common good land. Furthermore, given the terms of the bequest, it is inalienable common good land. This means that, unlike alienable common good land (which the council can dispose of as its sees fit), any disposal of such land requires the consent of the courts. (1) It was with this intention that East Renfrewshire Council petitioned the Court of Session in April 2014.

At this point it is worth revisiting the Portobello decision very briefly. In that case, the City of Edinburgh Councils wished to appropriate (that is, to use common good land for another purpose but to retain ownership) land in Portobello Park to build a new school. An action was taken against the Council by Portobello Park Action Group and the Court of Session found (on appeal to the Inner House) that the Council had no powers to appropriate inalienable common good land. This was because the Local Government (Scotland) Act 1973 which governs such matters is silent on the question of appropriation in these circumstances and thus the common law prohibition on appropriation of inalienable common good land prevails. The City of Edinburgh Council resolved the matter by seeking specific authority under a private act of Parliament to appropriate the necessary land.

The Cowan Park case turned on the question of whether the proposals for building a school constituted a disposal or an alienation. If such an arrangement is regarded as a disposal, the Court has the power to decide whether to grant authority to proceed. However, if the arrangement is considered an appropriation, the Court has no locus since there is no provision in the 1973 Act for it to take a view.

The plan is to lease the land to a special purpose vehicle which, in turn will sub-lease the site back to the Council and construct the school. The Court in this case found that, since the Council would retain possession of the land as the sub-leaseholder, there was no disposal involved and that “the petitioner’s proposals are properly to be characterised as appropriation.” (2) Thus, “as there would be no disposal, the petition must be refused as unnecessary“.

So where does that leave East Renfrewshire Council?

Well, the Court cannot provide the consent that was requested and thus there are three options available.

The first would be to seek the same remedy as the City of Edinburgh Council in the Portobello case and petition the Scottish Parliament for a private Act of Parliament.

The second would be to build the school on the southern half of the park which is not common good land (though I understand other factors mean that this is not a suitable site).

The third would be to do what South Lanarkshire Council did and go ahead and build the school anyway. As outlined in a previous blog, the Council in this case, having petitioned the court and having been advised that the court had no locus (just as in the present case), nevertheless went ahead and built Holy Cross High School. No-one raised an action against the council. Had anyone done so, then, the court would most likely have found that the Council was acting beyond its powers. This is exactly what happened in the Portobello case because, whilst the courts have no locus to approve such an action at the outset, they do have the power to rule it unlawful should it be contemplated AND someone takes an action against the Council.

In conclusion, this latest case demonstrates why, in my view common good law is in need of modernisation. The Community Empowerment Bill proposes some modest reform on transparency but fails to address the underlying complexity and the need for the law to be updated to reflect modern needs.

NOTES

(1) – In my opinion Lord Tyre is wrong at [5] where he claims that “As a general rule, a local authority has no power to dispose of common good land or to appropriate it for other uses“. On the country, if the land is alienable it is free to dispose of it or appropriate it. See Ferguson, Common Good Law (Avizandum) at foot of page 88.

(2) Lord Tyre at [16]

One of the most welcome recent developments in Scottish democratic reform has been the Commission on Strengthening Local Democracy. which was established in autumn 2013. Chaired by the visionary Councillor David O’Neill, it has bravely gone where no administration at Holyrood has gone in all the years of Scottish devolution.

Today is has published its Final Report which concludes that 50 years of centralisation has not worked. It reached this conclusion after a great deal of work (all of which you can find here). In its Interim report in April 2014, the Commission showed how Scotland was the most centralised country in Europe with the weakest and least democratic form of governance. The graph above, taken from my own Renewing Democracy in Scotland report for the Scottish Green Party)  shows how this trend has developed since 1894.

Read the report (and my own one from February this year) and consider why this matters.

The Scottish Parliament will be considering a Community Empowerment Bill over the coming months. The Commission’s report highlights why this Bill will only treat the symptoms of disempowerment.

Here are some quotes from the Commission’s final report.

The case for much stronger local democracy is founded on the simple premise that it is fundamentally better for decisions about these aspirations to be made by those that are most affected by them…

….after decades of power ebbing away, for many people it has become increasingly inconceivable to think that local communities could be in charge of their own affairs.

In the end, all of our thinking has come down to seven fundamental principles that we believe must underpin Scotland’s democratic future.

We have also concluded that the evolution of Scotland’s democratic system across the past 50 years has more or less undermined or inverted all these principles, albeit often with good intentions.

and finally,

The principle of sovereignty has been so inverted that it is now routine in public policy to talk about governments and local governments “empowering” communities rather than the other way round. The principle of subsidiarity has been undermined by the progressive scaling up of local governance, and central control of local resources and functions. The transition from over 200 local councils in 1974 to only 32 “local” councils in 1996 is one of the most radical programmes of delocalisation that we can identify anywhere in the world. Moreover, Scotland’s local democratic structures can be changed at will by any national government with a majority. That the Scottish Parliament is in exactly the same position with respect to Westminster illustrates how “top down” the whole framework of democracy is.

Will the political parties at Holyrood grasp this agenda? The Scottish Green Party appears to be the only one that has unequivocally done so. In a report in June from the Local Government and Regeneration Committee, MPS concluded that,

[para 40] Our preliminary conclusion here is that beyond the narrow confines of academia and COSLA, people are less concerned about the ratios and numbers of councillors to wards and more interested in how functions are being exercised and the extent to which they are able to influence them.

[para 41] Equally we see no identifiable case for increasing the number of authorities, we are not convinced of the need for structural reform of this type. Later in this report we look at whether changes should be more concerned with appropriate powers in different areas matching local needs.

This level of arrogance and complacency is breathtaking.

There is now a clear divide between those who think democracy works just fine in Scotland and are content to pursue policies that undermine local democracy (such as the council tax freeze) which would be illegal in other jurisdictions (1) and those who want fundamental reform in our democratic structures.

Regardless of the outcome of the independence referendum, this is a question that the Scottish Parliament has the power to resolve. if it is to do so, however, the people must be mobilised to support such reform. How is that going to happen?

 

NOTES

(1) See page 13 of Renewing Democracy in Scotland

“…during the 2011 Holyrood election, both the SNP and the Labour Party promised that, if elected, they would freeze the level of the council tax despite this being a local government competence. Evidence suggests that this was a popular policy but the council tax level is not set by the Scottish Parliament but by each of Scotland’s 32 local authorities.

The fact that politicians seeking election to a national parliament could so easily usurp the powers of local government in pursuit of their own electoral success is an illustration of the crisis that is local democracy in Scotland. Had Angela Merkel made such an appeal to German voters in the Federal election of 2012, she would have been advocating a clear violation of the German constitution, specifically Article 18(2).

“Municipalities must be guaranteed the right to regulate all local affairs on their own responsibility, within the limits prescribed by the laws. Within the limits of their functions designated by a law, associations of municipalities shall also have the right of self-government according to the laws. The guarantee of self-government shall extend to the bases of financial autonomy; these bases shall include the right of municipalities to a source of tax revenues based upon economic ability and the right to establish the rates at which these sources shall be taxed.” Article 28(2) Basic Law for the Federal Republic of Germany