Will Scotland Take the First Tentative Steps Towards a Modern Digital Democracy?

GERMANY, Bonn, "Online" - Human miniatures on a computer keyboard.In the latest extract from the autumn edition of Closer, Kevin Williamson explores an e-democracy for Scotland.

The Life and Death of Democracy by Professor John Keane is a mighty tome. Epic, informative and opinionated, it takes democracy as its subject, weaving together a historical narrative of the hows, whens and wheres. The ancient Greeks set the ball rolling and from the streets of Athens the idea has slowly taken root.

It has been a slow and often painful process. At every twist and turn in the road political elites have done everything in their power to resist the spread of democracy to the poor or to women. Democracy has always been considered a dangerous idea. Such was its threat there was a point in 1940 when only eleven nominal democracies were left in the world.

Professor Keane’s book is an unusual one. Published in 2009 the book’s advance publicity stated it was the first general history of democracy to be published anywhere in over a hundred years. If we agree that democracy is a necessary component for any civilised society it is remarkable that so few histories of democracy exist.

Since Keane’s book appeared a handful of titles have been published on the subject, which is encouraging, but it still begs the question why the history of democracy has been ignored for so long. Democracy is after all the key which opens the door to the garden of Eden.

On Thursday 5th May 2011 I set off, polling card in hand, from my home in Wester Hailes. As folk who know me will testify/complain I tend to walk quite fast. It took me about five minutes to reach the polling station. For a normal human being that’s about a ten minute walk. For pensioners perhaps a little bit longer.

It was raining much of the day which meant voters in my area faced a 20 minute return trip to the polling station, with a possible soaking thrown in for good measure. Dumbryden Gardens has some acute social problems so you can guess the rest. Suffice to say the turnout from areas like mine was much less than the national average of 50.4%. In an age of smartphones and superfast broadband for democracy to be affected by such things as the weather or the distance to a polling station is absurd.

As the votes were announced and it became clear the SNP had achieved the one thing that no one believed was possible – a majority government – Scotland slowly awoke to the enormity of what happened and what it meant: we were going to have a referendum on Independence. The people would decide.

It could be argued that this unexpected turn of events proved that democracy in Scotland was in good shape. The people were being trusted to make the biggest decision in any of our lives. In one sense this is true. Irrespective of where you stand on the Yes-No divide, debate around Scotland’s constitutional future has reinvigorated politics here. Instead of the usual stramash of political parties trying to sell you their wishy-washy wares a battle of ideas has begun. Politics has become more complex and the ideas gaining credibility are ones that have more substance than conservative manifestos or simplistic sloganeering.

I don’t buy into the idea that the referendum debate so far has been of a poor quality. Some important markers have been laid down. The Common Weal project, facilitated by the Jimmy Reid Foundation and founded on the idea of a Nordic/Scandic model of social democracy, has gained influence and credibility and is perhaps best placed to be at the heart of an intellectual struggle for a more equal and just Scotland post-UK. The Radical Independence Conference of 2012 brought together almost 1000 activists to discuss ideas for Scotland post-Independence. Recent idea-books by authors such as the late Stephen Maxwell, Andy Wightman and Lesley Riddoch bring fresh perspectives and new ideas to Scotland’s political discourse.

Yet throughout this political re-awakening, this national soul-searching, this re-imagining of Scotland, what has been noticeable by its absence from the very heart of the current debate is how exactly the Scottish people are to be engaged in our brave new democracy.
I’d like to put the case here for a re-examination of the accepted parameters of what we call democracy and propose that the fundamental infrastructure of British democracy, as it stands, including our devolved parliament in Edinburgh, is not fit for purpose.

Most critiques of British democracy so far have focused on constitutional anomalies incongruous with living in a modern 21st century democracy: the absurdity of a hereditary Head of State, the anti-democratic nature of an unelected second chamber, the discredited system of First Past The Post voting, the absence of a written Constitution and/or a Bill of Rights. And quite righty so. British democracy is not the envy of the world. It is structurally incapable of reflecting the will or opinions of its own people. Using whatever criteria you choose, whether at local or national level, the UK is one of the least democratic countries in Europe. The people of Scotland deserve better than this. As do the good people of England, Wales and Northern Ireland for that matter.

It is likely that the Scottish Government’s Independence White Paper (to be published this November) will challenge some of these democratic deficits and map out a potential path to a new, modern and distinctly Scottish democracy.

We can assume that at the core of this White Paper will be the proposal that an Independent Scotland should have a modern written Constitution. This is vital and is not negotiable for most people who support a Yes vote. How this Constitution will be drafted, amended and finalised should become clearer after November.
All of this should generate a new wave of discussion, argument and no little excitement. As indeed it should, for if Yes wins the train leaves the station, a brand new nation state is born, and everything is up for grabs.

Yet even a cursory examination of the democratic infrastructure we have at present should have the warning lights flashing. The democratic process as it stands allows the people limited access to decision making. Joe Public gets to put a cross in a box every 4-5 years and that’s our participation over and done with. This cross is supposed to represent the sum of our hopes, desires, aspirations and ideas. This is Democracy Lite. Its a pale shadow of even what the Chartists fought for two hundred years ago.

For instance we have no right to recall elected members who fail us. The case of the odious wife-beater Bill Walker comes to mind. Nor do we have any right to trigger a vote of no confidence in an unpopular government. We have no right to veto legislation going through parliament. We have no right to propose new laws and then put them to the people.

These ideas may sound radical to ears conditioned by British prejudices against popular democracy but most of these ideas have been tested. The electorate in US states can formulate and then vote on new State laws. Swiss cantons can go much further and even directly elect Government Ministers. Some of these ideas can be traced back to the polity of Athens and the ancient Greeks. But here, in Britain, in Scotland, everything is left to an elite of professional politicians drawn from the political party system. We, the people, are simply persona non gratis and not to be trusted.

It doesn’t have to be this way. It can be argued that politics and decision-making is way too important to be left to career politicians. If left to professional politicians behind closed doors they’ll surrender power to the highest bidder. It would be a foolish person who tried to argue that the UK government has control over the banks and corporations rather than the other way around.

The British political system has never hidden its distaste for referenda. The idea of consulting the people is anathma to British political elites. Only twice in modern times has Westminster called a national referendum. In 1975 there was one on whether to continue as a member of the EEC. In typical British style it was a consultative referendum. As it happened it backed the government of the day’s position. Then in 2011 a half-baked fudge of a referendum was called on electoral reform, which in reality was little more than a cosmetic exercise in democracy to buy the support of the Lib Dems in the Coalition government. Another is being discussed on EC membership for sometime after 2015.

Scotland has had two further constitutional referenda in the post-war period. The first was the notorious rigged one of 1979, followed 18 years later by the vote which reconvened the Scottish parliament. Fast forward another 17 years and the Independence referendum will be our third.
From a purely practical perspective organising a national referendum once every 17 or 18 years is not so problematic. The same clunky system used at national elections can be wheeled out: 4 million printed ballot papers, thousands of big wooden boxes, a national network of primary schools and community centres seconded, plus an army of paid workers are hired. It is a laborious time-consuming process. And costly too. The Independence referendum has been costed at £13.3m of which £8.6m will go on the physical running costs.

We need to ask ourselves: if we are serious about invoking the sovereignty of the people, and actually involving the Scottish people to create a new democratic state, can this archaic system – designed in the 19th century for an electorate of just a few million well-to-do people – be utilised?

If the Scottish people are to be genuinely involved in the drafting or amending of a constitution it will need a much more sophisticated mechanism than we currently have available. As will the vote to pass any finalised Constitution.

A democratic nation should learn to love and embrace referenda. They are an invaluable way of breaking the stranglehold that political elites have on democracy. They encourage and educate the people to take greater civic responsibility for their own society.

We will need referenda post-Independence. There is the question of whether we join the EC or not. That will need to be ratified by a referendum. There is the thorny question of which currency we use. I suspect that the clamour for a Scottish currency will grow as soon as the Bank of England make a decision that undermines a Scottish government’s economic strategy or priorities. That too will need a referendum. The British Queen will be 90 years old when the first election is held to a self-governing Scottish parliament. It is unlikely she will survive that first term of government as Head of State. Support for a vote on a Republic once Prince Charles becomes Head of State may be unavoidable. The list of potential referenda could be quite long in fact.
This prospect will horrify political elites who are used to keeping people disengaged from decision-making. But this should be welcomed as a fledgling democracy finds its feet and seeks to do things different. Scots may actually want to be directly involved in governing themselves once their appetite is whetted.
The unavoidable practical conclusion to be drawn from this is that the old system of wandering down to a local primary school to put a cross in a ballot paper is hopelessly dated for a modern 21st Century democracy. Even more so when regular referenda or any form of direct democracy comes into play.

With this in minds the Scottish government, as a priority, in consultation with the people, will need to create a viable alternative. The most obvious solution is an electronic or digital democracy where people can vote at home, work, or wherever they happen to be. The hardware is already available via home computers, the internet, smartphones and interactive TV. Its up to the Scottish Government to begin now in gathering the technical expertise together to create a robust secure electronic or digital voting system. For the country that invented the steam engine, the telephone and the TV, a secure voting app should be a doddle.
It is worth noting in passing that Brazil became an electronic democracy in 2000. India, with the world’s largest electorate of around 630 million people at the time, became an electronic democracy in 2004. These were the first tentative steps to embrace new technology and their electronic voting machines haven’t malfunctioned the way the clunky voting system did in Yorkshire in 2010 when people were effectively disenfranchised.

Once a simple secure electronic voting system is put in place consulting the Scottish people becomes a relatively straightforward matter, it also becomes relatively inexpensive, and can be arranged at short notice if necessary. The sovereignty of the people would become a practical reality rather than a lofty ideal.
For decades democracy has been withering on the vine as people are turned off by career politicians, hollowed-out political parties, plus their own sense of disempowerment. Now we have a chance to do things different. Following a Yes vote Scotland could challenge the antideluvian practices of British democracy and pioneer a radical new approach that re-invigorates participation in the democratic process. A question hangs in the air: are we democratically-minded enough to give it a try?

Therein lies the root of so many problems, some of which a fledgling democracy will have to navigate.

Bernard Crick wrote a condensed primer on the subject: ‘Democracy: A Very Short Introduction (2012)’. Brian Roper has written a leftist take in his recent ‘The History of Democracy: A Marxist Interpretation (2012)’.

See also: http://ebooks.cambridge.org/chapter.jsf?bid=CBO9780511818271&cid=CBO9780511818271A011



Categories: Commentary, Digital Culture

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7 replies

  1. Yeah. Mmm. I love the web, I’ve been addicted to it before it even existed (I was a BBS nut way back when), and yeah it spreads wider and wider and with IPv6 soon every lightbulb will have a web address. But. There is still serious digital exclusion, and it’s hard to see how that can be dealt with, be it language, money or physical disability that holds people back. And while there is a class of people who will jump on every issue, there are many, many more who, quite rightly, think they shouldn’t have to spend so much time educating themselves about the talk of the day.

    Yes participative democracy would be so much better than representative, but it needs deeper thought; we need to separate the administrative from the policy making, we need to assess whether there is a need for constant political decision making and so many professional politicians. We need to start further back.

  2. what a safe and secure electronic voting system would do is to alter the nature of power itself as it would decentralise it entirely, localise it and change the structure of political representation. Instead of voting power away from you it would allow the individual to participate actively and sophisticatedly in a new way of running our lives and administrating our society. Nothing is going to change the way things are. Kevin’s article is helpful in making us think about it. The recent use of the internet by the people of Iceland to draft a new constitution following the vandalisation of their country by banks is a good recent example of applied technological change to political process.

  3. The problem:

    “Whether its racist or not, the reality is that a startlinly large number of people in England, Scotland, Ireland & Wales will vote for their local MP because the Stun or the Daily Mail or Express, or for that, Mirror, told them to. Or because they like his nice pink tie, or her flowery dress, hairdo, smile, whatever.

    The sad reality is that a substantial proportion of the electorate are politically illiterate, or get totally fixated on one issue and vote according to that – so law & order or immigration, for example, being major issues absolutely hammered by the right-wing press, generating fear and paranoia which only voting for a right wing party can address. Talk to these people and try and have a sensible, informed discussion with them, and the response will be straight from the mouths of Richard Littlejohn & his ilk. There is little intellectual grasp of the issue – it is 100% emotionally driven. So people who are unemployed, signing on, and going on about dole scroungers and voting Tory – and I know people this applies to – because the Daily Mail or Sun, which they read every day, told them dole bludgers are evil, so they vote Tory to solve the problem. To say there is cognitive dissonance is an understatement.

    And if you cannot accept this reality, you really are living in some kind of cloud cuckoo land.”

    FRom ‘Comment is Free’ – The Guardian Newspaper

    Our education system is geared towards turning out disciplined little soldiers; we are not taught to reflect, analyse or criticise.

  4. There really is no alternative to decentralising power. Centralised decision-making by fixed elected representatives just is not fit for purpose in an increasingly complex world. We will naturally evolve a democratic structure that allows us to express opinion on issues, form caucuses and vote on propositions with local, national or international effect – because it needs to be that way. The system cannot be designed but it is already emerging with likes, tweets and retweets, online communities of interests, campaigning bloggers, peer-to-peer buying and selling, the list goes on and on.
    An interesting development is the Liquid Democracy software developed and used by the Pirate Party in Germany to allow mass-participation in decision-making.

  5. Dave, you have a point, or rather the Guardian article does. However if this very problem is to be addressed, it has to begin with a fundamental change to the decision-making system. I feel that, leaving aside those who vote as they’re told (and they certainly exist in large numbers), there are also those who don’t vote, because they’re not engaged. I believe that, at least in part, this is because they feel their votes are useless, that they can’t make a difference. Once these voters begin to see that they are directly involved in making decisions which affect their lives, they will quickly become active participants in their own future.

  6. People who can’t get off their fat arses and show a bit of community spirit or civic pride once in a while don’t deserve democracy. I’m all for participation and am optimistic about the future here should the inscrutable Scots finally show some bottle in the referendum. The moot matter of electronic plebiscites is an interesting one and will probably be realised in some form hence; ELECTRONOCRACY ? The focus now should be to get the apathetic, obstinate, ill informed or undecided members of our electorate to wave their ballot papers in the air with pride.

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