Sunday, 18 May 2014

We should decide who Governs Us.

"The people of Scotland will always get governments we vote for"
SNP White Paper, part 1 (first bullet point)

In general discourse (and certainly on Twitter) this seems to be the most widely used positive argument for a Yes vote.  On the surface it's pretty hard to argue with, but hold on a minute: is anyone saying "we shouldn't decide who governs us"?

This issue is so emotionally loaded that I fear some very basic principles of representative democracy are misunderstood, forgotten or ignored by those making this argument.  Don't get me wrong: there is a valid argument to be made about the "democratic imbalance" but it's not the one most often cited. We'll come back to that, let's first clear up a few things that seem to cause an extraordinary amount of confusion in this debate.

Firstly - with apologies to those who already "get this" - let's consider for a moment how a representative democracy works.
  • In a representative democracy voters are aggregated into constituencies who elect representatives to stand up for them in parliament. The party who has the majority of representatives governs.
  • The representatives who aren't in the governing party oppose. You are represented either way; opposition is a critical part of democratic government
  • Take any subset of that democracy and sometimes they will have voted for the party of government, sometimes not
  • This is true of any representative democracy. It would be true of an independent Scotland; some constituencies will vote SNP when Labour are in Power; some will vote Labour when the SNP are in power
  • Nobody can say they "always get the government we vote for" and yet some of the more simple minded in this debate seem to think that is what an independent Scotland will mean

Hold that thought.  The White paper goes on to say:
  • "With independence, Scotland will always get the governments we vote for. The trend of Scotland voting for one government and getting another has become more stark since 1945. For 34 of the 68 years since 1945, Scotland has been ruled by governments that were elected by fewer than half of Scottish constituencies. Constituency results for Scotland rarely affect the outcome of UK General Elections."
Let's unpick this because it gets quoted a lot in various forms.
  • "The trend of Scotland voting for one government and getting another has become more stark since 1945"
    • I haven't gone back before 1945 to check this assertion; I'll assume it's right
    • But why start at 1945?  We could equally (correctly) say: "in 13 of the last 17 years the party of government has been the same as that voted for by Scotland".  No, its not 100% of the time (bear with me): but the trend isn't really starkly worse is it?
  • "For 34 of the 68 years since 1945, Scotland has been ruled by governments that were elected by fewer than half of Scottish constituencies".
    • This statement is almost identical to saying "Labour have been the party of government about half the time since 1964".  [Going back to 1945 simply introduces the exceptions of 1951 (Scotland was 'hung' between Conservative & Labour) and 1955 (when Scotland voted Conservative, as did the country)]
    • The point here is that in a closely balanced democracy with fine margins of majority and/or frequent swings in political favor, over the long-haul roughly 50% of constituencies will have voted for representatives who form the party of government; roughly 50% forming the parties of opposition. To put is another way, this is as true for Conservative strongholds as Labour strongholds.
    • The statement could equally be made for Greater Manchester (about half the population of Scotland) which  consistently votes Labour but frequently gets ruled by a Conservative government. Choose a Conservative stronghold and the same statement could be made; I'm fairly confident I could place a compass on a  map and draw a circle with a population within it greater than Scotland's where the same assertion could be made.
  • "Constituency results for Scotland rarely affect the outcome of UK General Elections."
    • This basically says "if we weren't the swing vote, our vote didn't count".  It's a statement that borders on being insulting to the reader's intelligence.
    • By the same logic nobody's individual vote counts in an election unless their constituency was carried by a majority of one. 
So in fact what this statement says to me is: over the long haul Scotland gets the government it votes for about its fair share of the time if you accept that we are trading off the benefits of being part of a larger nation against the ability to get what "we" want all the time.

Hopefully we can at least achieve consensus in this debate that the questions is how do we balance that trade-off?  A simple illustration: Shetland has consistently voted Lib Dem since 1999; they could lay claim to a good amount of oil revenue, they are a discrete geographic Island, they have a distinct cultural identity.  In an independent Scotland will they "get the government they vote for"? Would the Scottish separatists campaign for an independent Shetland?  As one of my more rational Nationalist interlocutors on Twitter said: "but it would hardly be optimal scale".  OK so we can agree that the ability to "always get governments we vote for" by limiting the size of our nation is traded off against the benefits of being in a larger nation.  So we just need to decide if Hadrian's Wall happened to have been built at just the right point to define that optimal trade-off point between getting what "we" want all the time vs. the benefits of pooled resource and risk sharing as part of a larger nation...

Maybe one more thing we can rationally agree on.  Separatists risk looking a little foolish if they point at any political failure in the last 50 years (yes, there have been plenty) and use it as an argument for the failings of Westminster Politics.  Allow me an illustration of this point: I have heard on many occasions the argument that we should be Independent so we don't have situations like when "we" were unwilling participants in the war in Iraq.  I've heard SNP politicians cite this example. That war was entered into by a government that was voted for by an overwhelming (75+%) of Scottish constituencies. This is just one of several examples where separatist campaigners point to a bad thing that happened under the government we voted for and use it as a reason to "get the government we vote for".

Its infuriating.  Limiting the size of the electorate will not make politicians perfect, will not stop governments disappointing us and letting us down from time to time.  We can't look at all the mistakes politicians have made and realistically think "that wouldn't have happened if it were just the Scottish that were voting".  Can we?

But I promised that I would return to the valid argument about "democratic imbalance" that does exist. That argument is that because Scotland is consistently a socialist leaning electorate we could create a State that could shine as a beacon of social justice to the rest of the world.  That's possible, it is a reason to vote Yes; but I submit you would need to believe the following;
  • You'd have to believe that devolved powers don't already give us the freedom to pursue a meaningfully different path for the people of Scotland
  • You'd have to believe that this pursuit of social justice will for some reason work better in an independent Scotland than during the recent 14 years' of UK Labour government (a Labour government Scotland voted for don't forget)
  • You'd have to believe that it would work well enough to overcome the myriad of benefits that we lose by breaking our ties with the rest of the UK (see my posts on Scotland's Trade with rUK and Independent Scotland and the EU for examples. More coming)
  • You'd have to believe that it is better to pursue social justice only for the people of Scotland and give up on pursuing social justice for the whole of the UK.
You might believe those things. Personally I've seen nothing in the White Paper and heard nothing in the rhetoric that persuades me that the politics of a smaller nation Scotland would be in some way "better" than the politics of a larger nation UK.

Making a country smaller does not make it is some way "more democratic", it just makes it smaller. That might be better or worse for a variety of reasons, but being "more democratic" will not be one of them.

I recognise others do not share this view view and can understand that position -- but would suggest it needs to be held with enough conviction to argue for it despite the downsides of breaking the Union, not in denial of them.

Addendum
Further to Twitter debates following this post;

We are not voting for self-determination; the vote is self-determination.  The people of Scotland, only the people of Scotland, are making this decision. We are getting this choice, we are not denied our democratic voice; the referendum in and of itself is delivery of that, it's not what we are voting for. What we are voting for is to decide if we'd rather be separated from the Union ("free to pursue 'our' own path") or remain within the Union ("continuing to benefit from pooling and sharing risks &  resources across the UK").

6 comments:

John Ruddy said...

Heres an interesting fact. In 1951, England voted for Labour - they held a majority of seats there. But the UK got a Tory Government, because there were more Tory seats in Scotland than Labour. Not only did we get the Government we voted for - but England didnt.

Likewise, in 2010, thanks to Scottish MPs, we got a coalition rather than a Tory majority government.

Anonymous said...

Iraq is a bad example since a majority of Scottish MPs voted against the invasion.

Alex said...

Here's a for example of somewhere that "doesn't get the government it voted for": London. London has a majority of Labour voters and MPs, but the government located here is a Tory one, and a majority of Labour borough councils, but the mayor is a Tory.

Anonymous said...

I understand the fallacy of "the Government we vote for" line in the context of British politics, however, you've completely ignored the fact that we don't use First Past the Post in the Scottish Parliamentary elections... a Yes vote would also be a vote to ditch FPTP.

MrD said...

Just want to address your "You'd have to believe" section.

You'd have to believe that devolved powers don't already give us the freedom to pursue a meaningfully different path for the people of Scotland

Yes, I do believe that. The Scottish Government is always reacting to things instead of doing what a national government should do, leading things. By constantly trying to defend Scotland against Westminster policies, this is not an effective use of a government. In addition "freedom to pursue a meaningfully different path" could mean a wide range of things, which definitely include the economy, defence, foreign affairs and more, which I'm sure you already know are NOT in the SG's ability to control.

You'd have to believe that this pursuit of social justice will for some reason work better in an independent Scotland than during the recent 14 years' of UK Labour government (a Labour government Scotland voted for don't forget)

From what I understand, The Labour Party have repositioned their political stance to be attractive to 'middle England'. I don't think its a stretch to think that many Scots are upset to think they voted for a party that has certainly abandoned its fundamental principles. Scots are guily for voting them in you are correct. But I think it's perfectly fair to want to leave a system where the parties you voted for no longer represent you. A lot of Scots think that.

You'd have to believe that it would work well enough to overcome the myriad of benefits that we lose by breaking our ties with the rest of the UK (see my posts on Scotland's Trade with rUK and Independent Scotland and the EU for examples. More coming)

As a Scot living overseas in a small country which used to be governed by Westminster, I do believe this too. If the UK were a federal state, then this point would probably work in favour of the union, however given that the UK is an incorporating and heavily centralised nation state (even with devolution), there's no reason to think that Scotland would not be able to pursue independent policies and objectives that would benefit Scotland more, these things are currently unavailable to Scotland as a 'region' of the UK.

You'd have to believe that it is better to pursue social justice only for the people of Scotland and give up on pursuing social justice for the whole of the UK.

There comes a time when people have to cut their losses. The pro-UK side are correct about one thing. Scotland in terms of population is small. 5 million people vs 58 million is not a significant influence and the pursuit of social justice (like any pursuit) is only worthwhile if you can do it in a way which will give a level of success. If Scotland leaves the UK and pursues a social justice agenda independently, the people of the rUK will see it and (hopefully) decide to vote for the same.

That is a far more effective way of effecting change. Staying in the UK and voting LibDem or Labour and then crossing our fingers is not going to be effective.

Cheers

Hutton Dressed As Lahm said...

The fundamental fallacy in this logic-based argument is that Scotland is nothing but a region of the UK - no more right to complain about representation than Cornwall, Northumberland or London.

Scotland is a country - it joined a political union as a country and never ceased to be one. Countries are distinct from regions.

No other country in the world would accept such a deal if it were put to a referendum, but that is what a No vote means.