News 05th Jan 2024

Challenging complacency: moving beyond 'not as bad as Westminster' in Scottish politics

Juliet Swann

Senior Policy Officer

Juliet (she/her) is based in Edinburgh and leads our work outside of Westminster - primarily in Scotland, but also with local government in England and with an eye on Wales and Northern Ireland. Prior to joining TI-UK Juliet worked for various Scottish NGOs across the democracy, participation, human rights and environment sectors. This included working to introduce the Lobbying (Scotland) Act 2016, advising the Scottish Government and other stakeholders on inclusive and effective public involvement in decision making, and delivering engagement projects including Scotland’s Climate Assembly. She is a member of the Scottish Civil Society Open Government Network Committee.

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2024 marks important anniversaries in recent Scottish political history: in May it will be 25 years since the first sitting of the Scottish Parliament, and September will be 10 years since the independence referendum. Each time, despite disagreements, hope existed for a better politics here in Scotland, so must we really settle for ‘not as bad as Westminster’? 

Back in 2013, as Scotland geared up for the independence referendum the nation saw an upsurge in political participation and discussion. I was working at the Electoral Reform Society in Scotland, and we decided to bring together over a hundred members of the Scottish public to deliberate over the question: what would a good Scottish democracy look like in 2030. Participants were asked to imagine this regardless of the outcome of the 2014 vote. We called it ‘Democracy Max’ (echoing the term ‘Devolution Max’ then used for proposals in Manchester and the north of England).  

Some of the key recommendations from those involved in Democracy Max were around transparency, honesty, integrity, accountability and openness. Principles reflected in the founding report by the Commitee on Standards in Public Life (now known as the Nolan principles) and also in the 1995 report of Scotland’s Constitutional Convention, ‘Scotland’s Parliament, Scotland’s Right’.  

Numerous studies since then tell us the same thing: trust in democracy and politicians is falling because people do not see politicians as trustworthy or acting with integrity. They feel remote from decision making; inequality of influence is increasing as those farthest from power see less and less point in getting involved, even with the most basic act of democratic participation – voting. Carnegie UK’s work on ‘democratic wellbeing’ and a recent IPPR report also record how political inequality is widening – resulting in policy decisions being made with little input from those who will be most affected by them.  

When the public are included (and effectively and usefully included) in decision making, and when they can see and understand why decisions are made, they feel more efficacious and empowered. We saw this in Scotland during the referendum debate – yes discussion was at times fraught, but political conversations were also vibrant, turnout was almost 85%, and many of those involved at the grassroots went on to remain politically active. Yet in many ways we have since failed to exercise the democratic muscle developed years earlier.  

So how can we do better? How can we restore trust in decision makers and decision making in Scotland?  

We have to actually deliver on those core principles that always bubble up when these questions are asked.  

It is not enough to just tell people decisions have been made fairly, you have to show them. Simply repeating that the systems are in place to support integrity is unconvincing, we have to monitor, use, and improve them. Unequal access to power and decision making, distrust engendered by opacity, and perceived misdirection of funds are all challenges that can be addressed by improved transparency and the application of, as well as commitment to, principles of integrity in public life. Abiding by such principles of honesty, integrity, accountability, and transparency should be a rush to the top, not a race to the bottom. 

At Transparency International UK we suggest that to demonstrate they are serious about integrity in public life, the Scottish Government should appoint a Good Governance Champion, with responsibility for: 

 

 

Delivering on more than just rhetoric and demonstrating an ethical and inclusive approach would serve to improve trust in politics, enhance engagement, and deliver better policy decisions and outcomes. 

My hope is that as Holyrood turns 25, those of us who work in and around the parliament and government seek to excel in meeting the standards of public life set out so clearly by Lord Nolan rather than resting in the complacency that we might at least be better than Westminster.