Decamping to the Bosco Theatre on George Street, The Evolution of Devolution was initially billed as an oppositional debate. The fact that the framing of this talk was shifted to one of a conversation, encouraging dialogue and wider discourse, is telling of the nature of the topic and the surrounding political debate today.
Bringing together renowned academic and director of the Centre on Constitutional Change Michael Keating, and writer, commentator and academic Gerry Hassan, the discussion was chaired by the ever eloquent Richard Holloway. Interestingly, the talk was (albeit rather tongue in cheek) self described as a kind of enlightenment style public forum… Although slightly removed from the debauchery of the private clubs or smoke of the public houses which fermented the outpouring of philosophy, economics and science that was the Scottish Enlightenment. In fact, if the Edinburgh Book Festival served one purpose, it was the cross pollination of differing ideas in a congenial atmosphere of welcome and friendly debate. Framed and ringed by Robert Adam’s architecture of Charlotte square, it was quite a poignant note on which to open, a reflection of Enlightenment ideas in the present day.
The ins and outs of what were discussed were framed by one overriding message. The “war of attrition” which has beset Scottish politics, and the very future of the nation, for so long as led to a mire of debate which has turned toxic. This, rather obviously, ties in with previous posts within this blog (link to stories). This toxicity and the stranglehold that its had on political debate Is intrinsically linked to the polarisation of political discourse discussed previously. The successful attempt to encourage conversation at this very event was meant to highlight the progress that could be made disregarding such divisive manoeuvres.
The issues which have led to the modern rise of the Scottish independence movement, and attempts to move away from a cultural, romantic nationalism and towards a movement with the ultimate aim of rebalancing the democratic deficit within the UK were summarised brilliantly. Moving past the “dysfunctionality” of the United Kingdom (and Scotland’s unequal place within that power dynamic), the talk turned to the efficacy of our current desired form of social democracy.
Is there a “paucity of thinkers” progressing the case for this equitable social democracy, as suggested? Even if this is true, the importance of institutions in balancing and addressing the shortcomings which lead to this paucity again appears even more important than ever, and vitally in need of reform. Whether the vehicle for this is overhaul of governance is increased devolution, or independence is a moot point, however the fact is that currently our institutions do not nurture the conditions for civic engagement. How they can be changed to allow such was also up for debate by the panel.
The discussion was far ranging in how to do this. Nurturing non parliamentary spaces of decision making, or at least spaces beyond the usual parliamentary model seemed to be essential. Some of these spaces, crucially, would also need to be non-party spaces. The party model of representative democracy by its very nature does not foster long term thinking, and amongst other issues often serves to be divisive in itself through overt tribalism. How can a politician, even with the best of intentions, commit to a programme of twenty, fifty years without knowing whether they’ll be in the same job in the next five? In addition to this, the fractious party politics which is much of our political sphere is also responsible, in part, for the entrenched position of debate today. Not to mention the effect of alienating those outside of the political bubble that even Holyrood operates out of. the panel also discussed whether the current processes of democracy were too removed from ideal civic engagement.
The fact is, as ably pointed out by Hassan, that even in the event of independence, “the same buggers would still be in charge.” The institutions that uphold the perceived “political class” need rethinking in order to broaden civic engagement, whether independence is offered or not. We need to open up politics so it is not solely some career-job built upon strata upon strata of its own insular processes.