The National:

TODAY, on the first day of the SNP’s 2021 Autumn Conference, members voted to endorse the conclusions of the recent Social Justice and Fairness Commission. Amongst which was a call to create a wellbeing society with a social contract built around collective democratic decision-making.

If these are to be more than words – and I hope they will be – I wonder if the Scottish Government truly understands just how much must change not just in Scotland but within their own mindset for these principles to come to fruition. If the party and Government take the conference’s call at its word, this could be the most powerful motion in the conference. If they shy from it, it could be the greatest betrayal instead.

Scotland is the least locally democratic country in Europe – even including England.

What we call our “Local Authorities” are far too large – most countries would call them Regional Authorities – and are incredibly weak compared to their European counterparts. Scotland lacks anything like the kind of municipal council structures that most countries have. What we have in their place – Community Councils – are often (though not always) dysfunctional, sometimes absent entirely, almost entirely powerless and have annual budgets that extend to hundreds, not even thousands, of pounds per year. The corrosive nature of this centralisation of power pervades through all levels of governance.

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If people cannot speak to their representatives and if their voice is too small in relation to all the other petitioners, actions cannot be taken on their behalf. With fewer politicians to lobby, it becomes easier for a single disproportionately powerful voice to “capture” our democracy.

If people cannot access their government and they cannot stand for election their unique perspective is locked out of our collective decision-making. Given that those locked out are often already disadvantaged – people who cannot travel far or live remotely from the seats of power, have accessibility needs or are women with young families – those lost voices become even more important to restore and hear.

Centralisation also increases the workload on those who can make it to government. The fact that Holyrood lost three MSPs in May due to the job being incompatible with looking after their families should be a point of national shame.

So to meet the challenge of the Social Justice Commission to allow for collective decision-making in Scotland, we should – with all haste – bring our democracy up to normal European standards of localism. Launch a tier of municipal government (Common Weal has a plan called Development Councils that shows what they could look like) and have a root and branch assessment of where powers should lie – local, regional or national level – based on the principle of subsidiarity (i.e. all powers should be local until, unless and only while the case is made to devolve them upwards).

We should do this considering our current democratic framework and simultaneously assess where the powers gained from Westminster should be placed once independence is achieved. Just because the Westminster grabbed EU powers from Scotland after Brexit doesn’t mean Holyrood should grab indy powers that could be better used at local or regional level.

If that’s the democratic mandate delivered, what of wellbeing? Since adopting the principles of a wellbeing government (and generating international headlines and a viral TED talk by the FM for doing so) I have seen little evidence that the Scottish Government really understands what it means. In almost the same breath as the First Minister saying that they welcome wellbeing metrics, they also say that GDP is still good too and that if we just keep pushing GDP in a “sustainable”, “inclusive” or “green” way then maybe we can improve wellbeing too.

The National:

Then the following day we can see the Finance Secretary (Kate Forbes, above) turn to business groups and fall into the worst kind of neoliberal “Business is good. Prosperity is good. GDP growth is tremendously good” language that would not have been out of place in a parody of 1980s City Finance seminars. This is not what a wellbeing society looks like.

The principle of wellbeing is that collective wellbeing should be improved regardless of the impact that that improvement has on GDP. If increased wellbeing causes increased GDP, great. If increased wellbeing causes decreased GDP, just as great.

How could the latter happen?

One of the exciting ideas that came out of the Climate Assembly was the call for Resource Libraries in every community where you could borrow many things that right now you buy but rarely use. Everything from that cheap powerdrill in the drawer to the baby clothes that barely last a single wash before they’re too small.

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If instead, you can borrow professional grade tools, your “DIY wellbeing” can improve. If you borrow children’s clothes, toys, prams etc, your kid’s wellbeing (and your wellbeing as a parent) improves. In both cases, fewer things need to be bought so the GDP of the country’s DIY and kids clothes sectors goes down.

Just those two principles – wellbeing and democracy – implement in just those two ways could lead to a Socially Just Scotland that is almost unrecognisable from the one we currently live in. I wonder if this is is the Scotland that the Social Justice Commission envisaged when they wrote their conclusions. I hope it was. I hope members see it as that. And I hope the Government does too.