Above is a link to the full version of a much abridged interview originally published online here and reposted below – in which I speak to writer, researcher and leading land reform activist Andy Wightman, and ask: what are the prospects for democracy in in an independent Scotland?
LB: You responded to the launch of the Yes Campaign with #yesauchtermuchty and a series of tweets on local democracy. What could the decentralisation of power mean for Scotland?
AW: I’m very interested in this whole debate because I think it’s a reflection of that fact that Britain, and Scotland, is one of the least democratic countries in Europe, and I think a lot of the stuff around the referendum is posturing and tribalism. It’s a fairly shallow debate and certainly hasn’t engaged people, and most of the reason for that is probably that it’s still two years away. I’m of the view that politics has become trivialised in Britain… and we look at things like independence referendums as just another talent contest. And I think the hollowing out of local democracy is a real problem and kind of an unfashionable cause at the moment. A lot of people poo-poo it, but it’s strange that no other European country has done what we did and abolish local government, and it’s strange that none are wanting to do it… If you look at the parliamentary records of 1972, 1973, the Wheatley Commission, it’s a really animated debate – very high levels of engagement by citizens and people arguing against the abolition of town councils, because they really felt a sense of ownership of them. And [the town councils] were a bit nepotistic and corrupt in places – but then government is.
At the heart of a lot of debates we have at the moment is we don’t live in a democratic country. With a second chamber that’s not democratic, with a head of state that’s not democratic and with no real democratic institutions in which people can participate in a meaningful way. The Jimmy Reid Foundation did an interesting report called ‘The Silent Crisis’, the lead off of which is a German academic based here at Edinburgh, with a series of interesting tables. One of them was the percentage of people who actually have stood for election – and in a lot of countries it’s like 1 in 400, 1 in 800 have actually stood – and here it’s like one in a quarter of a million or something, it’s just ridiculous. If you don’t engage with political activity, you don’t understand what politics is about; you don’t understand its potential, its transformative potential – and you become apathetic.
LB: In And the Land Lay Still, James Robertson tells the story of a nation in flux; a nation whose emergent identity is shaped by the vagaries of the post-war period. How does the land lie in contemporary Scotland?
AW: And the Land Lay Still is a wonderful book, I really enjoyed reading it; I think that it’s very well-crafted and I like James Robertson as an author. But I do not recognise that Scotland as much more than a minority interest during the period he’s talking about and he’s been criticised for that, and that’s fair enough – he doesn’t pretend that it’s anything other than that. But the nationalist cause post-war was a tiny, tiny, tiny little cause. And yes there was a flame burning if you like, and for those adherents this was something that would come to life eventually, and he captures that very well. But post-war Scotland was a very consensual place… well it’s difficult to compare now with then, it certainly was not as portrayed by James Robertson I don’t think. It was a very statist, quite an elitist place – quite a conservative place. I mean, a lot of those attributes still apply I think. I think the big change was when Thatcher came along and, you know, some people commend her for this and I think there’s some ground for doing so – I mean, she elevated the individual in terms of its political relations and particularly its economic relations to the state in a way that had never been done before – she was a genuine revolutionary. And that, I think, has changed the character of Britain as a whole quite considerably. And then her economic liberalisations: the ‘big bang’, globalisation, the rise of neoliberalism under her watch and Regan’s – it has really led people to believe that actually the polity doesn’t matter very much because as long as they can do well for themselves and their families, in essence that’s all that matters.
I think contemporary Scotland is still living in the shadow of Thatcher’s revolution, whereby – and this gets back to my earlier point about local democracy – really, it’s what you do for yourself that matters… A lot of the political discourse around just now is focussed again on the individual: Alex Salmond, up or down; what did so and so say. You know, you watch the political discussion programmes like Question Time, questions are asked by the audience which are not direct, you somehow have to ask some question which seems to come in from the side and Dimbleby has to interpret it and more often than not it’s about what somebody said, you know, ‘Ed Miliband said something, do you agree?’ Well, frankly – who cares? It’s the issue that matters. On things like land, banking, finance and money – all the stuff that’s kind of structural, architectural, it’s the foundations of society – you don’t get any meaningful discussion. Well, actually, banking’s a bit different. If you go into any Irish pub now, far more of them are clued up about economics than before… [but] I think contemporary Scotland is still characterised by what characterised post-war Scotland: it’s conservative, it’s elitist – but it’s also much more individualistic.