The Scottish Constitution - Towards a New Settlement

13 Dec 2007 by

A compliation of Policy Institue papers covering all aspects of the constitutional debate from fiscal autonomy to local government. Contact the Institute to order a copy.

Introduction: Democracy & Liberty in Scotland

Democracy & Liberty in Scotland 

Democracy and freedom do not always go hand in hand. For elections are simply a method of appointing our leaders; they do not in themselves prevent them from becoming tyrants. From foreign demagogues to home grown busy-bodies there are plenty of examples of elected politicians undermining liberty.

For liberals, then, elections are merely one tool in the constitutional box for checking the power of government. They must be augmented by other mechanisms – an independent judiciary, the division of power, and many others that are explored in this book

For socialists, on the other hand, elections play a different role. Democracy legitimises government action. The more democratic an institution becomes, the more legitimacy it acquires. Similarly, they often hope that the more representative it is, the more effective it will be. Institutions or rules that restrict government power – the courts, the House of Lords - are regarded with suspicion if their democratic credentials are flimsy.

These issues – representation, legitimacy, liberty – have been at the heart of constitutional debate in the West since the Enlightenment.

In Scotland that debate has been reignited in recent times by the question of nationalism[1]. To what extent does or should legitimate power rest at the Scottish level, and how should it be wielded?

Liberals are thoroughly divided on this question. On one wing, some oppose even the mildest form of devolution. Denying a necessary link between local representation and legitimacy, they were happy with the pre devolution arrangements as the best guarantor of good government in Scotland. They worry that more democratic institutions will simply legitimise more damaging government intervention in the economy and society.

At the other extreme some liberals are nationalist, arguing that good, limited government can only be achieved by exposing our politicians to maximum scrutiny and accountability.

This volume compiles the Policy Institute’s work on this subject between 2003 and 2007, or the second term of the Scottish Parliament. Between them, the five short papers cover most aspects of the constitutional debate in Scotland from a liberal perspective. Since they deal mostly with constitutional principle rather than politics, their message will remain relevant for years to come.

The book starts with Saving Devolution (2007), in which Craig Smith argues that in practice the current Scottish Parliament already has all the powers it could possibly want or need. Even fiscally, it controls taxes that bring in more revenue than would ever be cut or raised by a sovereign Western democracy. With a few modest changes, mostly well within the remit of the Parliament or political parties, devolution can be saved. This chapter is a tonic to those weary or wary of further upheaval.

The full range of intermediate arrangements are comprehensively assessed in Paying Our Way (2004). Many in Scotland are unhappy with the current devolved arrangement but are reluctant to contemplate independence. For them, reform is needed to provide more accountability and power for the Scottish Parliament, primarily by giving it greater fiscal responsibilities. Ross Harper and Iain Stewarts’ chapter is a complete guide to all the options and their costs and benefits. It examines precedent from around the world; it addresses the thorny issues of asymmetrical tax and benefits systems within the UK; it explains the Barnett Formula. In short, it provides everything the reader needs to know about the constitutional options for ‘half way house’ Scotland. Updated with a new codicil, it should (though won’t!) be the final word on this subject.

Taking Liberties (2004) explains the core problem we face in a democratic age. The democratic process has, since it was introduced only a century ago, undermined many of the liberties it was supposed to protect, some of which had been bloodily hard won over hundreds of years. The author, Craig Smith, shows how this happens with the devolved government in Scotland as an example.

What should be done? In Restoring Liberties (2005), Smith has some suggestions that would be particularly useful were Scots to move to wards full independence, (or revert to full Union).

Finally in Local Heroes (2004) Smith turns to municipal government. Too long neglected in
Scotland as in the rest of the UK, councils have become backwaters, largely free of new thinking, with slipping standards of governance. The wider constitutional shake-up is a good opportunity to address this. Smith has some great liberal ideas to inject badly needed rigour into the
Scottish Town Hall.

After only a century or so, modern democracy is still new and it still throws up surprises. Although there has now been extensive study of the ‘vote motive’, most liberal-minded people have not come to terms with some of its implications. In particular, many hanker after low levels of government intervention that are nigh inconceivable in a democracy, as Taking Liberties points out. Still more continue under the delusion that democracy and freedom are the same thing, and pursue the former in search of justice, not realising that the two are often incompatible.

But democracy is not going to go away. Being based on a powerbase of the whole population, it is extremely stable. We cannot return to the 19th Century. Instead, one of the great challenges for 21st Century liberals will be how to reconcile democracy with individual freedom and responsibility. Many battles we thought we had won are having to be fought again. This book is a guide to how to start in our own small corner of the world.


[1] At the Holyrood election the year this book was published, nationalist candidates won 39% of the seats at the Scottish Parliament, with the Scottish National Party winning the largest number to form a minority administration.