Ancient Athens is often held up as the closest the world has come to a pure democracy. Male citizens would meet in the assembly to adopt laws, pass legal judgments, and other administrative business. This system excluded women and slaves, but it nevertheless gave the world a model for what true citizen participation could mean. It was also unstable. As James Madison noted in Federalist No. 10, “Hence it is that such democracies have ever been spectacles of turbulence and contention; have ever been found incompatible with personal security or the rights of property; and have in general been as short in their lives as they have been violent in their deaths”.
Its volatile nature notwithstanding, pure democracy is also impracticable in a large country. The idea of 65 million British meeting in Trafalgar Square to take collective decisions simply cannot be done. This is in part why representative democracy was developed, in which representatives are chosen by the citizens to represent their interests in a Parliament.
This system of representative democracy is in poor state in many countries, including the UK, in that so many Parliaments have become captive to financial interests and the wealthy, and are becoming increasingly incapable of functioning on behalf of the common good. The reasons for this are manifold, but fundamentally it seems to boil down to a decoupling of the interests of the representatives and their constituents. The key to survival for Parliamentarians is less serving their citizens, and more currying favour with the financial gatekeepers of their party to get re-elected.
The referendum of 2014 presents a historic opportunity to break with this plutocratic trend. If Scotland were to achieve independence, I propose several provisions which could be included in a written constitution which would help to maintain an indissoluble link between the Parliamentarians and their constituents, thus hard-wiring a resolutely democratic government, to ensure a fair and equitable system well into the future.
– Voting should be mandatory for all legal residents, with automatic universal registration for all over 16. This would ensure that Parliamentarians are truly and directly accountable, while promoting strong voter engagement.
– A strong civic education should be given in all secondary schools before young adults begin voting, explaining how the Scottish constitution works, and how to be active participative citizens, whatever their political orientation.
-There can be a ban on paid political advertising, by any entity. Given, there are already good UK laws in effect which restrict such advertising, but these should be maintained and reinforced in a constitution.
-There should be public equitable financing of parties, with absolute bans on outside contributions, with total transparency on spending accounts posted online for public inspection. No loopholes should exist which later could have buses driven through them.
-Come election time, a written constitution could help to insure that the evaluation of MSP’s is done through neutral criteria. A government website can be set up which includes all votes, amendments proposed, constituent feedback, and other relevant criteria, available to voters when deciding for whom to vote. Challengers can offer their ideas, critiques, and backgrounds for consideration on an utterly fair basis.
– While think tanks and research organizations are important for a well-functioning democracy, there should be total methodological and financial transparency if their information is to be eligible to be part of the political debate. Scots have the right to know how research groups arrive at their conclusions, their research and surveys subject to thorough public scrutiny, and total transparency on their donors is vital to ensure accurate and impartial information upon which to base political decisions.
While some details may fall more under the purview of law than constitutional clauses, these provisions in a written constitution could collectively ensure that Scotland would have the most democratically responsive government in existence. So much of the dissatisfaction with the status quo for Scotland in the UK is based on the perception that the Westminster Parliament simply does not represent Scots. Given that only 59 of 650 Westminster seats are Scottish, and there is only one Scottish member of the ruling party, this sentiment has stark validity. Independence with a judicious, balanced written constitution could transform Scotland into a true beacon of democracy and exemplar of representative government. Scots deserve nothing less.
First published on Newsnet.scot on 23 August 2012 as part of a series of articles on constitutional issues published between July 2012 and Sept 2014.