Last night I attended a Nordic Horizons meeting at the Scottish parliament building for a round table discussion entitled “McKommunes: People-Sized Local Government?” Nordic Horizons is a mixed group of Nordics and Scots who are interested in using Nordic approaches to government and political economy as inspirations for reform in Scotland. The event centered on a discussion of the utility of the kommune, a Norwegian and Swedish unit of local governance, as an example for reforming and possibly replacing the system of local councils put in place in Scotland by the British parliament in the 1970s and which has remained in effect since devolution in 1997-99.
The round-table was chaired by Lesley Riddoch, who noted in her opening comments that Scotland, a country of 5.2 million people, is of comparable size to Nordic countries such as Norway (5 million), Finland (5.4 million), and Denmark (5.6 million). In Nordic countries, kommune and other local governments average 32,000 residents with hundreds of these districts per country; in contrast, Scotland is organized into 32 councils that are neither local nor regional, but have characteristics of both, and which average 162,500 residents per council.
The panel featured four speakers: Rob Gibson MSP (SNP, Caithness, Sutherland & Ross), Sarah Boyack MSP (Scottish Labour, Lothian; Local Government Spokesperson), Eberhard ‘Paddy’ Bort, Academic Coordinator of the Institute of Governance at Edinburgh University and Professor Mike Danson, Reader in Economics and Management at the University of the West of Scotland. All four panelists are in favor of reform to Scotland’s system of local governance, and one, Mr. Gibson, is currently drafting a Local Empowerment Bill to be debated by the Scottish Parliament within the next year.
In his remarks, Mr. Gibson, a member of the ruling Scottish National Party, outlined the recent history of Scottish local government, such as the failed local governments of the pre-council era. He also stressed the important moral distinction between localism, a inward-looking provincial outlook, and local control, a democratic outlook compatible with a wider social democracy. His central message was that advances in Scottish democracy, especially through proportional representation, now allowed advances in Scottish society at the local level, which would establish a virtuous cycle between social and political improvement.
Next to speak was Ms. Boyack, a member of the Labour opposition party, who reflected upon dissonance between the devolution of powers to the Scottish parliament from Westminster and the Scottish parliament’s own centralization of local powers and taxation, such as control over council tax. She characterized the centralization process within Scotland as one resulting from inertia as much as design, and called for wider debate over how localities are funded, noting the great advances made by kommunes in establishing local utility co-ops that allow communities to do more to help themselves. She contrasted this with the way utility contracts are awarded in Scotland, where inefficiencies of scale disqualify local businesses from competing for contracts, which are instead awarded to English or other non-Scottish firms.
Professor Danson followed with a brief presentation and paper on the theme of striking a balance between the democratic accountability afforded by local control, and the cost-effectiveness of efficiency of scale. In particular, he discussed the desirability of agglomeration economies, which tend towards centralization and away from local control. With an implicit eye towards the coming referendum on Scottish independence, he noted that sovereign nations have been turning towards agglomeration economies as a way of pursuing national competitive advantage, and that while this benefited the metropolitan areas at the center of agglomerations, it posed new challenges for localities caught at the edges or between these centers.
Mr. Bort concluded the presentations by noting how the UK has moved against the trend of regionalization as EU member states have turned increasingly to devolution to local and regional control. He noted various absurdities in the current system, such as the case of the Highlands council, which serves the entire area of the Highlands but to which many coastal villages are physically unable to send delegates to the council seat at Inverness. He also argued that the centralization of local governance within the councils discouraged participation, meaning that the ratio of elected local officials to citizens stood at 1:4,000 in Scotland, in comparison to 1:500 in Iceland. The result of this was an extremely thin pool of experienced local politicians to serve in the Scottish parliament, as well as a lack of democratic legitimacy. He urged the Scottish parliament to devolve greater authority to localities as the parliament itself gains greater authority in the coming years, noting that civic pride was “sadly missing” in many parts of Scotland and that local control could help revive it.
A roundtable discussion followed the presentations. Several things struck me as being particularly interesting. First, I noticed the diversity of people present, including the prevalence of MSPs and council officials who wished to take part in finding better ways of organizing Scottish society, as well as the number of Nordic and Scots-Nordic people in attendance. This indicates that Nordic Horizons is not a fringe group of Nordic enthusiasts, but a mainstream movement with supporters in Scottish national and local government.
Second, I noticed the number of times participants in the audience used some version of the word “fail” to describe local governance. Scottish local governance is indeed a failure and is just one part of a civil society that has been broken by decades of mismanagement. Nordics who come to Scotland to visit or study often note the appalling state of civil services and infrastructure, as well as the shocking inequality in wealth and income, and the consequent social decay that accompanies it. Just as good governance can create a virtuous cycle with good social standards, bad governance can help create a vicious cycle. It often seems that Scots themselves are unaware of the extent of this human catastrophe. It was heartening to see that a broad group of people do see this and are doing what they can to push back and try to fix the problem.
Thirdly, as an American born and raised in Massachusetts, I was surprised by the extent to which things I took for granted are just now being brought up for debate here. Massachusetts is known for having the most localized government in all of the United States, with local schools, infrastructure, policing, and fire departments governed by town assemblies with money appropriated each year by a town meeting. In addition to their inspired choice of kommunes, Mr. Gibson, Ms. Boyack, and other reformers might look to the Massachusetts example for further ideas.
Fourthly and finally, I was heartened by the willingness of the members of Nordic Horizons to think comparatively and go outside their borders for inspiration. You would not see this in America, a country increasingly prone to nationalism and the rejection of foreign influence. It shows that Scots, who may be independent from the UK within the next few years, are taking the prospect of independence or “devolution-max” seriously, and view it as an opportunity to break with a dysfunctional way of organizing society, not just a break with a parliamentary union. That is perhaps the most spiriting development of all.