Published on September 22, 2014

Trusting politicians on democratic reform is a mugs game

People and participation Scotland

By Simon Burall

Simon Burall is the Director of Involve. He has extensive experience in the fields of democratic reform, governance, public participation, stakeholder engagement, and accountability and transparency.


broken mug, nobmouseThe moments when the opportunity for real constitutional reform come around are rare, very rare. This is as it should be. Such reforms have long-term implications for the relationship between citizens and government. This kind of change shouldn’t be made quickly; it requires reflection and a focus on the future of the nation as a whole.

The outcome of the Scottish referendum has opened up one of the largest opportunities for building a better democracy in my generation. It’s a mark of how disengaged English civil society has been from the debate about Scottish independence that the speed of this appears to have taken most of us by surprise. In the space of a few days genuine, widespread energy for reform has developed way beyond London and Parliament.

That’s why I’ve found the descent by the political parties into narrow political point scoring so depressing. The interventions of all the party leaders into the debate appear to be aimed at beating their rivals in the General Election next year, rather than having any focus on what is best for the country as a whole.

It’s depressing for another reason; citizen’s economic opportunities will be directly affected by the decisions that are made about a new constitutional settlement between the four countries of the Union.

The UK is a highly unequal country. Decisions such as the level at which to allow tax raising powers – the four countries, regions or even cities – will radically affect education and health outcomes across the country. Getting devolution at the right level with the right settlement between richer and poorer regions will be critical for ensuring that all citizens prosper from any democratic reorganisation.

There are no resource neutral constitutional changes out there, and the status quo is no longer an option.

Yet changes of this nature, as with any reforms that lead to the redistribution of resources, are clearly highly political. We cannot have a narrow debate based on party political point scoring. Instead, we need a much wider political debate about the future of the UK’s democracy rooted in positive visions for our country’s future. Any constitutional settlement needs to reflect this debate, not lead it.

It is clear that our leaders are currently incapable of opening the political space for a genuine, broad debate about the constitutional make-up of the UK. They are stuck in the ya-boo politics of Westminster. As a result they are incapable of creating a space where views are exchanged robustly, but where the focus is on listening to and engaging with the views of opponents. Instead they closing the debate down and will stop UK citizens from reaching for better.

If our leaders can’t see past the ballot boxes of May 2015, then it is up to civil society and citizens to create a different debate outside the Westminster bubble, a space that our leaders can’t avoid. The people of Scotland were able to do this. We can build on this and grab this once in a lifetime opportunity to build a more democratic country.

Image credit: nobmouse

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