Cllr Andrew Burns: More democracy here please!

Andrew_Burns_9_200x200By Cllr Andrew Burns
Leader of the City of Edinburgh Council

Whatever result arises from the September 2014 referendum on Scottish independence, my one-big-wish for the period following the next Holyrood elections, in May 2016, would be exactly the same …

… I would wish to wake up on Friday 6th May 2016 in the midst of a much more deliberative democracy than the one in which I live in at the moment.

And by deliberative democracy, I basically mean that decisions should be arrived at by more than the simple aggregation of preferences that occur when we vote. Before final decisions on public services are made, there should be much more direct-deliberation, by the very citizens who are the recipients of those same public services.

And frankly, I don’t believe a specific yes or no result, in the September 2014 referendum, is more or less likely to ensure such an outcome.

I say that as someone who has now been an elected Councillor for over a decade, and latterly having been Council Leader in Scotland’s Capital City for over two years now.

But I’m no careerist politician and did not get involved in frontline politics until I was in my late thirties, having spent well over a decade before that being very directly involved in a whole host of civic campaign groups and organisations.

So – rather sadly – I have thought about these issues over several decades now, from both inside and outside the mainstream political arena, and remain wholly convinced that a more deliberative democracy is primarily about political culture and not political structure.

I guess I first became involved in the wider, democratic reform movement back in late-1990 when I joined Charter88 (as it was then) when I lived and worked in Stoke-on-Trent, and shortly thereafter attended the Charter88 Manchester Convention in November 1991. It was a complete turning-point in my political awareness and a period of a few months for which I will be forever grateful. If anyone involved in organising that Convention is listening – you changed my political life.

Shortly after, during late 1991/early 1992 I think it was, I joined the Electoral Reform Society (ERS), and in 1993 I moved back to Scotland (Edinburgh to be precise) and went completely native within the devolution-movement and the imminent 1997 referendum campaign, eventually being elected as a Local Government Councillor in Edinburgh for the first time in 1999.

Back then, in the early 1990’s, it is true that the political structures of the wider United Kingdom were very, very different from today – here’s what didn’t exist back then:

  • A Scottish Parliament
  • The use of proportional representation (AMS) to elect that Scottish Parliament
  • A Welsh Assembly
  • The use of proportional representation (AMS) to elect that Welsh Assembly
  • A Northern Ireland Assembly
  • The use of proportional representation (STV) to elect that Northern Ireland Assembly
  • A Greater London Authority (GLA)
  • The use of proportional representation (MMP) to elect that Greater London Authority
  • The use of proportional representation (Regional List System) to elect the European Parliament
  • A House of Lords free from hereditary peers
  • The Freedom of Information Act (England and Wales)
  • The Freedom of Information Act (Scotland)
  • The incorporation of the European Convention of Human Rights (ECHR) into British Law
  • The use of the Single Transferable Vote (STV) to elect Scottish Local Government

It’s not a bad list of achievements within a 20-year timeframe … and we all too readily forget it.
And these hard won reforms are not enough for me – I’d like to see the list above added to by the following:

  • The implementation of fixed term Parliaments at Westminster
  • The use of proportional representation to elect English Local Government
  • The use of the Single Transferable Vote (STV) to elect the House of Lords
  • and yes, the use of proportional representation to elect the House of Commons
  • Votes for those of 16-years of age, for all levels of Government
  • The formation of Regional Assemblies in England
  • All as part of a federal-settlement for the United Kingdom
  • All contained within a Written Constitution

Do I really think these things can be achieved in the next 20-years?

Yes I do. The evidence of the previous two decades proves that these seismic constitutional changes can be won, with hard work, determination, and a willingness to learn lessons and keep going in the hardest of moments.

I do thus remain an old-fashioned UK-(con)federalist, and will vote no in this month’s referendum.

But I also have a shocking acknowledgement to make – I don’t think the sky will fall in, if Scotland votes yes … life will go on; the earth will continue to turn; the sun will rise.

Of course, the actual result will have a profound political impact on the country we live in. But neither possible result – and I only wish more politicians would honestly admit this – will be a panacea for all of Scottish society’s ills.

I completely accept that others, have arrived at a different decision – many of them may have settled on supporting Scottish Independence via a similar, constitutional (and political) trajectory to my own … that’s fine by me; I respect their view; and hope they respect mine.

But, to return to my earlier point – such changes to the current UK constitutional set-up, or even a move to outright Independence for Scotland, would not guarantee of themself a more deliberative politics.

And you really would need to be inhabiting a wholly different world from the one I live in, if you weren’t aware that trust between the electorate and those of us either elected, or employed, to serve that electorate, has broken down badly. It’s no different here in Scotland, to the rest of the UK. Or, to the rest of the democratic world, for that matter.

And we need more than structural change – much more – to fundamentally alter that reality of our current political narrative.

The good news is that all sorts of deliberative techniques and models exist; enough to fill a whole, further article. Anyone interested could do worse that take a quick glance at Participedia: http://www.participedia.net/en (an open global knowledge community for researchers and practitioners in the field of democratic innovation and public engagement) which will give a quick flavour of just what is possible.

Sadly to date, few Governments, of any political persuasion, have implemented a full-scale programme of such change to ‘the way we do politics’.

But I remain the eternal optimist that such change will come … and regardless of whether there’s a yes or no result… I might just wake up on Friday 6th May 2016 in the midst of a much more deliberative democracy than the one in which I live in at the moment.

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