Governments should be closer to people. I wish politicians would stop deciding to send teenagers to kill and die in foreign adventures. But if ministers are going to launch a war, they should not issue their commands from a limestone palace hundreds of miles away. There should be a good chance they know some of the families of those they command into the line of fire.
In post-enlightenment Britain, we are weaned on the liberal mythology of inhuman abstractions. We are expected to trust our distant leaders to make rational choices on the basis of what is best for us all. We are brought up to believe they will weigh evidence and push their pawns around the chess board until they perfectly balance the interests of each of us. This has never happened. Whether they know it or not, those who run our governments are human. Intentionally or not, they make decisions not through cold hard reason informed by all of the millions of complex and easily misunderstood facts there are to know about the world. They make them as we all make all decisions – with the filter that their necessarily narrow experience of the world has bestowed. They are influenced by their experiences and the experiences of their acquaintances – of those who are close to them. And so they must be as close as possible to as many as possible of the people they claim to represent.
People should be closer to their governments – they should be their government. Politics – even narrow parliamentary politics – is about much more than elections and bills. It is about who can exercise influence. It is about access, about accountability, about whose ideas are heard and whose are ignored. If we are to have governments, it is crucial that they are capable of listening to all of those who shout, no matter how loud their voice. This is harder for sixty million than it is for five million. This is harder when some people live five hundred miles from their capital city.
The choice in the coming referendum is not between Scottish and British. Many Scots – most Scots – are happy to be both just as we are happy to be siblings and parents and offspring and lovers. Short of an immense feat of human effort over geology, Scotland will always be a part of the island Britain. The choice is between Westminster and Holyrood.
National identity is in a sense a bizarre construct, used by various leaders at various times for means fair and foul. What is meaningful is power: who has what power over which decisions, who is likely to be excluded by those processes. Looking at the former, I can’t think of a significant power I would rather have held at Westminster than Holyrood. Many support a second option – a middle ground. But the difference between devo-max and independence is little more than Trident submarines and a war in Iran. Why on earth would we demand to control energy strategy but choose to leave decisions about where to send soldiers to a parliament still darkened by the shadow of its former Empire? For those things best organised at an island wide level, we can and surely will have a new association of British nations. It could, for example, manage the Ordnance Survey.
But it is the latter – who is included and who is excluded – that is more important to me. In a democracy, ultimately, we should each have equal power over each other. This power is almost never mediated through atomised individuals. And so democracy is a clumsy negotiation between groups towards a better future for all. What matters is that each voice – the lonely shout of each individual and the harmonising chorus of each collective, is heard. The bigger the country, the harder this is. The more people, the more voices are thrown into the mix. The more people, the higher the risk that any elite which emerges will be more distant.
In a smaller state, on average, each person has more say than they do in a bigger state. This is, in itself, important. But is is particularly important for those of us who don’t believe that significant decisions should be mediated by the market.
In 1973, ship builder and radical union leader Jimmy Reid was elected rector of Glasgow University. In his rectorial address, he put his finger on the malaise that was to overcome much of the Western world in the following decades. His speech is entitled ‘alienation’. In the twentieth century’s struggle between left and right, this is a key concept the left forgot. Because whilst markets are alienating decision structures, so are centralised states. The welfare state is being auctioned off because there aren’t enough “folk left with the faith to fight for it”. “Unless you allow the young to help build the village, they will burn it just to feel the warmth” – so goes African proverb much tweeted last August as London was licked with flames. So it is with rioting teenagers, so it is with those who vote for slash and burn Tories. We didn’t help build the welfare state. It is handed to us by a distant government of which we know little. Today we feel the chill as it burns.
The pyrrhic empowerment of markets seems to provide more choice than identical shiny faced politicians beamed into our living rooms from a Westminster world which might as well be orbiting another star: Galbraith’s balance of unions, capital and state has collapsed. It was a house of cards, built on a staid image of humans as stable automatons, happy to hand power to one puppet-master or another. Capital won. Not because, as the right claim, they won the argument. It won because it had all the guns, and because it played to its strengths.
The way for the left to win this back is to recognise this failure. We are a peoples’ movement or we are nothing. And peoples’ movements are not built on abstract unity. They are built from people: empowered people, with all of the flavours and colours that this means. And that means handing government to people as much as possible – bringing decisions as close to people as possible. If we are to democratise society, then we must realise that democracy is about communities, about human relationships, about conversations.
Once the state isn’t trusted it can be sold. Trust isn’t mediated through TV chat shows. It is won through relationships, in communities. And so, if we are to have a state – and I believe in an NHS and in nationalised trains and so I believe we should – it must be sufficiently close to people that they have a chance of knowing its representatives, it should be built on the back of genuine, human scale communities. As we decentralise democratic power, dismantling the oversized Wesphalian states will just be one step. But it is an important one. Sixty million is too big. Five million may be about right. And Scotland seems as good a place to start as any.
Co-editor of brightgreenscotland.org