About Trevor Davies

Retired now from politics and media. Honorary professor in Urban Studies at the University of Glasgow. Trustee of Edinburgh World Heritage. Student at Edinburgh College of Art


Scottish Fabians website 29 May 2017

The local election results suggest we could have reached ‘peak-Nat’, but they also suggest Scottish politics could settle into a ‘nationalist v. unionist’ duopoly.  That’s somewhat like Northern Ireland.  And like Northern Ireland it leaves little room for Labour and makes progressive change harder to achieve.

Labour, and Scottish Labour, desperately need a new story to tell that will allow us to re-find our place in the forefront of politics, a place which is neither nationalist nor unionist. Understanding Brexit and seeking to protect people from the worst of its consequences could help us begin that story.

“A truly global Britain” is the goal Theresa May entices us with.  As if somehow membership of the EU and all the trade agreements it has with nations around the world somehow made us less-than-global.  Her vision, spelt out at Davos, seeks to strengthen “the forces of liberalism, free trade and globalisation that have had – and continue to have – such an overwhelmingly positive impact on our world, that have harnessed unprecedented levels of wealth and opportunity”.

This newly-energised Britain of hers will assume “a new leadership role as the strongest and most forceful advocate for business, free markets and free trade anywhere in the world.”  In her speech at Lancaster House she said she wanted “to remove as many barriers to trade as possible”.

A truly global Britain?

A world of global, open opportunity, a new golden age, awaits us all post-Brexit, it seems.  And yet – at the Mansion House – she recognised that as a result of her lauded liberal globalisation the British people “see their jobs being outsourced and wages undercut. They see their communities changing around them and don’t remember agreeing to that change. They see the emergence of a new global elite who sometimes seem to play by a different set of rules and whose lives are far removed from their everyday existence.”

Opportunity for Britain, it seems, equals vulnerability for its people. With minimal “barriers” powerful outside players can seize their opportunity, undermining our control over our own economy and so exposing our vulnerability further. For a small country, like Scotland, by its very smallness and thus consequent powerlessness in the global marketplace, the effects of our vulnerability might easily overwhelm any opportunity we have.

Our vulnerability is all the greater because our performance in Scotland is already poor, in part caused by uncertainty surrounding the independence issue. Scotland’s recent economic performance tracked the overall UK level until the first quarter after the independence referendum of autumn 2014, since when GDP has been largely static at 5% over the 2013 base. The UK is now 8% over that base.  The once-great resource of oil and gas is past its peak and with just one major petro-carbon plant in the country the whole of Scotland is vulnerable to any disruptive event there.

Other non-economic factors make Scotland vulnerable too. Our long term health inequalities show little sign of improvement, leaving too many in poor health, and our once-envied educational standing is in serious decline.  We have one of the most powerful devolved parliaments in the world but our local government is weak and over-scaled, with, therefore, only marginal impact on the well-being of its citizens.

Brexit and a sense of vulnerability

Increased economic and social vulnerability will be the result of Brexit. Feelings of increased vulnerability seem also to be the main cause of Brexit.

People no longer feel secure, no longer have faith that their children will be better off than themselves. Real wages, except for the privileged few, have not risen for nearly a decade; “jobs (are) being outsourced and wages undercut”. Zero hours contracts, freelance work and ‘self-employment’ are on the rise with all the uncertainty and vulnerability they bring.  The security of house ownership is out of reach for most wage-earners.

Large international corporations, some larger than nation states, increasingly dominate how we live. They have no local loyalties and so undermine patterns of work, weaken structures of communities and flout national taxation.  Not knowing what to do with their profits many of these corporations sit on large piles of cash, often making as much if not more profit from financial trading than they do from their core business.  When finance rather than real production dominates the world’s economy it makes us all more vulnerable, as the past decade shows.

The response of conventional economics, believing money to the only measurement and markets, left to themselves, to be the best way to produce results, is to decry the role of government. Reduced public investment and diminished public services become the instruments of a vain attempt to ‘balance the books’ and ‘end the deficit’ for government.

The state is no longer a protector

Weak local government, big corporate dominance and mis-guided public sector reduction have all combined to endanger the livelihoods of the working people of this country, to undermine the supportive cohesion of neighbourhoods and to squeeze public trust in politics and communal action. The places people live have been changed beyond recognition “and they don’t remember agreeing to the change”; familiar local businesses close, public space deteriorates, strangers appear on the streets. More than that, the state is increasingly seen no longer as a protector in times of trouble but often a threat and a burden.  The ‘bedroom tax’, the ‘rape clause’ and SATS tests all put pressure on individuals and families.

Meanwhile those with wealth live separate lives, out of touch with the struggles confronting most people.  It’s no wonder people are angry.  It’s no wonder they are prepared to blame whatever remote set of forces they are told to blame.  No wonder that they will want to kick over the traces to get something to change, anything to change.

Take Back Control

To families and communities that have lost control over their own destinies, “take back control” is the most potent of political calls.

That call is at its most disturbing over immigration. Immigrants, as we all know but rarely acknowledge, pick our crops, staff local business and care for our sick and old. But immigration – the presence of the stranger, the ‘other’ – is the perfect receptacle for feelings of vulnerability, loss and threat.  Immigration is ‘uncontrolled’ meaning ‘we’re not in charge any more, someone else is making the rules’. Immigrants ‘take local jobs and undercut our wages’  meaning that workplace protection has largely disappeared, unions are weak, wages have stagnated and the respect and standing that came with a ‘proper job’ has gone. ‘The country is full up’ meaning the public sphere – from schools to hospitals, from housing to transport –  is overstretched and under-resourced and where we live just doesn’t work for us the way it used to. ‘I’m not racist but’ means things are changing too fast, there is no longer a strong sense of who ‘we’ and ‘us’ are in this place, no one seems to care about MY self-respect, the sense of worth in MY community, and so every newcomer – their colour, their language – is noticed more, diluting that sense of OUR place.  And so it becomes the Brexit call of ‘if only one of us were back in charge it wouldn’t be like this.  We’d run our own country again’.  Someone who understands us, speaks our language.

For the SNP this is familiar and productive ground. Scotland is not the more open, europhile country that its Remain vote perhaps suggested; it’s simply that the resentments and vulnerabilities  were absorbed by the cry for independence a couple of years before Brexit came along.  Replace ‘Brussels’ with ‘Westminster’ and the words  ‘we’re not in charge any more, someone else is making the rules’ and ‘if only one of us were back in charge it wouldn’t be like this.  We’d run our own country again’ take us right back to the Scottish referendum . (If only the SNP had thought of ‘take back control’ rather than ‘stronger for Scotland’ they might well have been onto a winner!)

Of course, leaving the European Union won’t ‘bring back control’.  The proposition that somehow we had ceded control to an unelected body in Brussels was always a lie.  But leaving could easily make things worse. Open for business as a “truly global Britain” will likely become ‘up for sale’ as yet more operators owned by foreign government run our transport, yet more foreign corporations supply our energy, foreign investors buy our houses and foreign companies own our companies.  It’s already happening.

A story of economic, social and political failure

The story of the years, perhaps decades, that pre-dated the Scottish referendum and the Brexit referendum is, for the left and for Labour, a story of economic, social and political failure. The proper and necessary attention we paid to changing racial and gender identity somehow blinded us to changes in identities of class and place. The proper and necessary attention we paid to raising and using the revenues from then successful liberal economics to renew public services somehow blinded us to the need to also act as a bulwark against those same liberal economics. Instead of using the strong moral sense that founded the Labour movement to bind people together in common purpose we left ourselves constantly open to the charge of ‘broken promises’ by simply saying what ‘we’ would do for ‘them’ – saying how we would spend their money for them. Instead of being the voice of the voiceless in places of power we became the voice by which power spoke to the voiceless.  And so when the chance came in two referenda, as the man in Sunderland said in June last year – “well, you’re listening to us now”.

A new story

Labour needs a new story about what makes us ‘us’. A story which which satisfies the need to bring back control without blaming the ‘other’.  It is a symptom of our weakness that we find that hard to do, but it is, after all, the essence of our history – working people gaining control over the direction and betterment of their own lives.

So we have to begin again. The only place to begin is where people are every day; begin with what they feel about their lives living where they live, how their families and friends and workmates feel about it.  Labour’s history tells us all politics is local – or at least starts there.

Then, knowing the anger, we should ask – what is it that eats away at the dignity and prosperity and sense of worth for a neighbourhood, a town and the lives of people in it?  Why is it that there’s a feeling that things are falling apart in their immediate vicinity? And what would make those places – and their inhabitants – flourish once again?

We don’t ask those questions of ourselves.  We don’t ask them of the people we’d like to represent again.  If we did we’d be confronted with tales of the closures of local shops and businesses, mediocre new housing schemes, too much traffic in the wrong places, kids getting stressed at school, too far to travel for health care.  We’d find that people are desperate to defend something about their lives and where they live that isn’t quite gone yet but they fear might be soon.  And –  nobody is listening. Hence Brexit.

If we did ask those questions, we’d find they weren’t answered by top-down policies like ‘a thousand more nurses’ or ‘ten thousand more police’ good that those things might be. We’d find they weren’t answered by simply opposing ‘austerity’ either; things were beginning to worsen before the deficit reduction story was spun. We’d find that it made no sense to claim that GDP is increasing or the numbers in work are going up. Who owns that extra GDP?  What kind of worK?

Asking the right questions

The answers we want would arise from asking questions like ‘how do we find out how to care for and improve the health of this neighbourhood, where do we start and how will we make sure it continues to be what was wanted’? Or ‘how do we find out what kind of education would make this place prosper, how do we re-shape local resources to start realising that and how will we know if we succeed’?

Or how do we make this town job-rich in a way that can continue over generations? How do we restore and protect the special character the inhabitants of this place love?  How do the voices of the people here get to make a difference? How do we take back control over our place and our lives in it?

The answer isn’t in our slogan for the past couple of years: ‘stop the cuts’ – that’s a top-down answer, an us-doing-things-for-you answer (though stopping public sector cuts is certainly needed).  It’s not four more public holidays nor a million more homes.  Gifts from politicians are no longer listened to. ‘Take back control’ is a bottom-up answer and that’s its power.

Labour’s own ‘take back control’ story?

Can Labour develop its own ‘take back control’ story?  Could we develop ways to rectify the vulnerabilities, heal the long-standing injuries, in people’s everyday lives that caused Brexit and then build ways to act as a bulwark against the vulnerabilities that will accrue as its result?

Could we, for instance decide we are deadly serious about creating ‘a community in which power, wealth and opportunity are in the hands of the many, not the few’?  That’s a serious take back control statement.  It doesn’t work if, as now, we interpret ‘the many’ as one broad mass of people across the country whose needs only we politicians can interpret and fulfil. That creates dependence not empowerment. It ignores that word ‘community’ at the beginning.  However, if power, wealth and opportunity are in the hands of the many at a scale at which individuals can comprehend, use and exercise those things for themselves and their families and neighbourhoods then that is very different and hugely radical.  It stands against everything neoliberal economics wants, everything the power-brokers of the few claim as theirs by right.  It’s not what the Tories, UKIP and the Daily Mail would like, but it could resonate in towns and villages and city neighbourhoods.

Can Labour develop a vision of work, place and community that can speak to people who’ve lost their sense of belonging – to class, to place, to work and the status it brings?   At a time when things that are meaningful to us are falling apart can we re-invent and take ownership of the social glue that will bind family and work and place and community back together again?  Glue in the form of all that we value communally and can only properly provide collectively?

Two economists

First a big focus – and then back down again – for which I rely on two economists.

Kate Raworth is re-shaping the story and the model of what economics should be if it is to sustain the planet and serve its people.  She calls it ‘doughnut economics’.
There is a foundation which is the minimum we humans need to build a good life for ourselves and our communities.  Raworth calls it the ‘social foundation’. It is what is necessary to meet the physical, social and political needs of individuals within a good society.  And then there is what the ecosystems of the planet, upon which our lives are even more fundamentally founded, can carry.  She calls it the ecological ceiling.  Our present political economy is failing to provide the social foundation and is already overshooting what the planet can carry.  There is a sense in her work which, if economics can be so organised to provide the social foundation, then there’s a much better chance of preserving our essential ecosystems.

Karel Williams and his colleagues at the Centre for Socio-Cultural Research have developed the notion of ‘the foundational economy’ in response to what they see as the failed experiment of the last four decades in promoting competition and markets in government.  This foundational economy – the provision of essential goods like health, education, social care, water, energy, housing, refuse collection, transport, prisons and food distribution – constitutes by far the biggest source of employment in many towns and about 35% of the entire working population.  And it is pervasively mis-managed by public as well as private sector providers because they seek the best value at each separate transaction, destroying the sense of mutuality and purpose upon which the foundational economy depends

If a way could be found to bring the foundational economy back into the public sphere, then to ‘re-territorialise’ it so that its focus and ownership were local rather than national or international, and then to ‘re-democratise’ it we would find the ‘common good’ could replace profit extraction as the guiding policy framework.

And there would be a chance that it could develop into the filling inside Kate Raworth’s doughnut.

Beginning the story

This then is the beginning of story to take back control: to regain public governance of the local foundations of our economy,  to re-entangle that economy in its locality and to put local people in control of it.

The story goes on to recognise that a local economy is housed, not in a blank open field, but in the physical structures of the locality – its buildings and streets and public spaces, its weather, its soil – which in turn affect the nature and quality of the local economy.

And it is a story which understands a local economy and environment exists too within the social institutions of its locality – its democracy, its information networks, its organisations.  Local economy, local environment, local institutions all combining into a sense of whether the place in which people live their everyday lives serves them well or not

As the voters know, that doesn’t happen. Today those places are worn out, eroded, unequal, divided.  Coming face-to-face with that reality everyday is what angers people. The places people live have been changed, damaged beyond recognition “and they don’t remember agreeing to the change”.

So, if our country and its people are to thrive, it is about Labour finding – re-finding – our new story of this place we call home.

Where to start?

It starts with the fundamental demand that the dismemberment of the state that the political right have been engaged upon for four decades is halted and that the common good and the collective voice, and therefore the state, re-assert itself.  It continues with the basic understanding that expressions of collective voice and common good are at their most effective locally as part of everyday lives. And it knows that it relies upon power, wealth and opportunity being in both our hands – through the local state and the national state.  It needs both hands to hold on to our rights and freedoms, to protect and defend our communities, and to mould and shape the future.  It needs both arms of the state – local and national – to be of equal strength, with neither dominant over the other, with rights and roles guaranteed in law, holding each other to account.  And it needs the functions and services of the state to be provided and governed at the level closest to the people who use them, close to home.

That is the great opportunity opened up by Scottish Labour’s initiative for a federal Britain. To find the right balance and relationship between national and local, each with a right to have their voices heard, each with their places in the constitution agreed and guaranteed.

The role of the national state – dispersed through parliaments in London, Edinburgh, Cardiff and Belfast – is crucial in forming that new constitution, restraining special interests, providing the resources, bearing down on inequality, guarding and raising standards, building the national infrastructure, managing the larger economy and reforming our institutions. It is a challenge that the parliaments barely know how to face and will demand extraordinary political leadership.

Renewing the local state

The local state has been hollowed out over decades mis-rule from the centre and needs complete, first-principle renewal.

How do the people who live and work in a place take back control over their own future?  How do they improve the health in that place, supply the educational needs, make it job-rich, sustain its character, shape its environment, renew its institutions?   The answer is not in electing someone to a distant parliament and relying on its civil servants and managers to come down and achieve those things.  It is by re-empowering and re-building the local arm of the state, under vigorous local democratic control, to return the foundational economy of towns, cities and shires across the country to local public and communal ownership and to provide those services of health, education and social security which are best provided close to home.

Neither nationalist nor unionist

That is Labour’s place – neither nationalist nor unionist, but – if a word is needed – communitarian, socialist.  Building a community, neighbourhood by neighbourhood, where, with the support of a re-invigorated state, both national and local, people have the power, wealth and opportunity in their own hands sufficient to grasp their own future together.

This is not the 1980’s ‘nationalisation of the commanding heights to the economy’ nor its current Corbyn version.  It is not “for the many not the few”, as our election slogan now has it, but  “in the hands of the many not the few” as our constitution says.  That’s very different.  It’s not top-down, statist. It stems from a different mutual, co-operative Labour tradition, holding tight to freedom and self-renewal. It is the socialisation of the foundational roots of the economy, upon which all else can be built.

The opportunities for transformational policies to protect, build and improve the lives of neighbourhoods, towns, cities and shires are many.

The foundational economy

Local economic prosperity does not rely on inward investment from ‘come and go’ multinationals wooed by national agencies.  It is about designing bespoke local policies which play to the characteristics of local economies and sustain local economic resilience in the face of Brexit-induced global pressures.  The local foundational economy – from local buses to local waste collection, from local health services to local energy generation, from water supply to housing – can be brought back into the public sphere, locally, through direct municipal ownership and a variety of social franchises or mutual enterprise.  Locally owned they can initiate a local multiplier effect by buying from local suppliers, as Preston Council is already doing in a necessarily more limited way. In the same way local businesses, seeing the benefit, can be encouraged to reciprocate by using local supply chains too.

Localising public services

Our public services of health, education and social security, driven as they are by national targets and national plans, are not serving their users and their communities as they should.  The many negative outcomes of their failure drive public spending as ministers seek to rectify them.  Housing policy must deal with failures in the housing market; health provision struggles against our failure to maintain the health of families, many sick with the diseases of poverty;  schools, with too many children disadvantaged by family ‘failures’ again associated with poverty, slip behind standards in the rest of the world while attempts to ‘fix’ that with centrally imposed targets and methods causes stress and mental health damage to our children. Studies show up to 80% of what is done in local authorities today is driven by what is called ‘failure demand’.

Central control of budgets, targets and methods is not working well enough. Public services, part of the foundational economy, will be better provided if they are devolved to the local level where the governance of their provision can be in the hands of direct representatives of their users, where local people, assisted by professionals, will audit and guide what is done, where users and providers together will ‘co-produce’ their services.  They will be cheaper because ‘failure demand’ will lessen.  Imaginative collaborations, centred on individual or community needs, can only happen locally:  perhaps local apprenticeship providers, job centres, FE colleges and social security funders together securing meaningful youth employment.  The multinational outsourcing companies, loyal to their bottom line and distant shareholders, will no longer have a place.

The quality of a place

That lively engagement and entanglement of the economy with its location is hard to make happen if the place itself is downgraded, disheartening, dysfunctional.  And for much of Scotland, especially the older, smaller urban areas, that is the case. Our places are not as good as they ought to be. Almost all the professionals involved in making or re-making the built environment in Scotland , even he Scottish Government’s own Council of Economic Advisers, say that, by and large, the best and the average places in Europe are a very long way ahead of the best and the average places in Scotland. They work better for the people who live and work in them.

Things will change only if our thinking about local economic policy is entwined with our thinking about our local physical development and regeneration policies. Then local leaders can begin to discover how to:

  • sustain existing local work, in the first place by the purchasing polices of local institutions
  • find and exploit opportunities for new work — through ‘import replacement’ and ‘export’
  • enhance the knowledge and work skills of local people and remove the personal barriers to working
  • retain or provide low-rent local business premises integrated within the locality
  • provide easy access to low-interest, small-scale risk capital
  • ensure there is a deep concentration and mix of people and uses in neighbourhoods to support demand for local enterprises.
  • provide the local internal connections between people through sustaining or providing local institutions and places for meeting and interaction
  • sustain or provide good connections to the wider economy.

Regeneration of a local economy through policies like these will not happen through sitting back and waiting for some invisible hand to appear. They happen through coherent action by the public sector.  That’s not possible at the national level; only the local state can do it.

Local state and local market

The physical context of a place is made through the interaction of public and private institutions and interests, the state on one hand and the market on the other.  At the moment the market is either strong or absent, the local state weak. So local democratic leadership needs a range of new legal instruments to allow the local state to effectively shape the market and there are plenty of practical existing examples throughout Europe on how to do this.  New tools need to be provided to allow the provision of collective goods – the infrastructure of utilities, public transport, public realm and open space – in advance of development. These tools must include means to enable the local state to acquire at least temporary ownership of significant development sites. And greater upfront resources, perhaps acquired from later participation in site value uplift, could be put to use to enable local leaders, with their communities, to create effective plans that ensure development is for the common good. Lastly, new local public institutions can be devised to spread risk and enhance, even realise for the public good, the increased long-term value from creating successful places.

Renewing close-to-home institutions

Our story about rebuilding resilience and prosperity in local economies and local places as a bulwark against the vulnerabilities revealed and increased by Brexit only makes full sense if we talk about how to sustain and enhance the social institutions in a locality too – its democracy, its information networks, its organisations, its culture.  Because economy and environment can be sustained and changed only if the local institutions encourage leaderships to emerge to provoke those actions.  That may mean public support for local independent media outlets, for new initiatives in local organisations, for communal co-operation for child care or building repair, for municipal banks and credit unions, evening classes and enterprise clubs, private sector tenants associations and public halls for theatre, cinema and the other arts.  All of these contribute to social cohesion, to individual and communal well-being and to the stake people have in their own future.

This is a transformational agenda – but very few of all these actions to make people satisfied and proud to live in the the places they do can be done by the local democratic state today.  Which is why our places fail and why people are angry.  It needs a re-imagining.

It needs a wholesale devolution of power on the principle that everything should be done locally other than those things which must, by their nature, be done centrally.  And more than that – it needs the creation, in Parliament, of a set of new local powers that enable and encourage real change.  This sounds daunting but it is not:  it is done all over Europe. And one of the fights that we have on our hands after Brexit is to continue, even to start learning from others in Europe how to do things better.  Scotland is a good place to start that fight – we’re a small country with a strong sense of itself, with a first-hand knowledge of how devolution works and with local government that is already urging change.

The people must shape that future

Fundamentally, we need a reconfiguration of our state – and our minds – from the bottom up.  It is the only way in which we can create a community where power, wealth and opportunity are in the hands of the many not the few; the only way on which we can learn the lessons of Brexit and protect our people from its consequences.  I have not written thoughts about that reconfiguration – deliberately.  It should be the people who shape that new constitutional future. That is why we really must heed CoSLA’s call last year for a people’s convention to re-make the constitution inside Scotland.  We can add that agenda to the people’s convention we’ve already mooted to re-make the constitution inside the UK.

Britain is a slow sluggish country when it comes to change. We are happier with the certainties we discover in our island isolation and our great ability for nostalgia.

But, as Roberto Unger says, “Constitutional arrangements should hasten the pace of politics, the facility for structural change, as well as raising its temperature, the level of popular engagement in public life.”


Trevor Davies is a Fabian member and honorary professor in Urban Studies at the University of Glasgow.  As a councillor he was Convener of the Planning Committee for the City of Edinburgh Council from 2003 until 2007.

This article was written after the local elections and before the Westminster  general election.

He has relied on ideas from a wide variety of sources and in particular acknowledge Marc Stears at NEF, Liza Nandy MP, Polly Toynbee and David Walker, the late Jane Jacobs, Neil McInroy at CLES, the Fraser of Allander Institute at Stirling University, John Seddon of Vanguard Consulting, David Adams at Glasgow University.  Kate Raworth of Cambridge and Oxford Universities and Karel Williams of Manchester University are named in the text.



Labour Hame 15 February 2016

Another year.  Another referendum.  Then it was Indy.  Now it’s Brexit.  So once again we’ll be assailed with fanciful economics, grass-is-greener politics and straw-man enemies beyond our borders. Above we’ll be treated to another surge in nationalism.

And nationalism is seriously bad for us.

Writing this in Scotland I know that not all nationalists are SNP supporters and not all SNP supporters are nationalists.  But nationalism is what drives the SNP, as it does for UKIP (and many Tories) over Europe.

I need to be clear.  Patriotism and nationalism are not the same thing.  Indeed, if we follow George Orwell writing way back in 1945, they are opposites.  Patriots identify with a place and a people which they value and want to nurture and protect, simply because it’s theirs and they believe it good.

Nationalism, on the other hand, is inseparable from the desire for power.  We see that desire in those in the EU debate who want to ‘bring back powers to the British people’.  And we see it in the SNP who consistently argue for more powers to ‘come back’ to Scotland and, in their case, not just some powers, but every power.  But it’s more than just power.  It’s about prestige too – about not wanting to be ‘dictated to’, by Brussels or Westminster, even though there’s no evidence of any dictator. Look through the social media or the noisier newspapers and the thoughts of nationalists constantly turn, as Orwell noted seventy years ago, on “victories, defeats, triumphs and humiliations”.  A win by a Scots sports star in the British team is a ‘victory for Scotland’. Criticise the SNP for a policy failing by their government and you are ‘talking Scotland down’.  When the desire for prestige is so strong, criticism seems close to humiliation, and so becomes an attack on the whole idea of the nation not on that single policy.

And that’s really bad for us because when policy is so infected with considerations of prestige, then debate, discussion, and so improvement, becomes impossible.  And if we can’t debate and improve that’s bad for us.  Nationalism is not just unpatriotic, it’s anti-patriotic.

For nationalists, the welfare of the place and the people isn’t paramount. The nation is. The nation, its powers and prestige, is what matters.  And in the minds of nationalists that’s because the Scots are somehow special.  Or the British are somehow special. They truly believe the rules that apply to the rest of the world somehow won’t apply here once we’re ‘free’.  Even when the facts are overwhelmingly against, nationalists stick to their position.  Their hunger for powers and prestige is tempered only by self-deception.  Orwell says it better than I can: “Every nationalist is capable of the most flagrant dishonesty, but he is also – since he is conscious of serving something bigger than himself – unshakeably certain of being right”.

That’s bad for us, especially when a party espousing those views is in government, because it leads at the very least to foolishness and cronyism.   Only a nationalist government would spend money on changing the name of a major institution from the National Gallery of Scotland to the Scottish National Gallery.  Only a nationalist government – strengthened by their belief that distinctiveness of language enhances national prestige and feeling – would introduce, at great cost, invented Gaelic station names in places where that language has never been spoken.

Foolishness we see daily. Cronyism and small incidents of petty corruption we are now familiar with as well. Because if nationalists are unshakeably ‘right’ then others must be wrong. And if nationalists are ‘right’ how can their behaviour be anything other than right too, especially when in pursuit of ‘the cause’. So we see talented people of other persuasions excluded from public appointments; we see a pressure to conform, both monetary and political, applied to those reliant on government patronage; we see the kind of minor corruption where small amounts of public money are given to organisations just because they are run or supported by other nationalists; and wrongdoings by other nationalists either condoned or unreported.

The unshakeable conviction of being right and the desire for powers and prestige above all else prevents consideration of any half-way house.  It is all or nothing at all.  The UK has the full power of a nation state and yet sharing that sovereignty with other European nations is seen by UK nationalists to remove all power to progress; we must leave and regain our independence if we are to be whole, free and powerful again.  It is the same in Scotland. Being provided with what was agreed and signed for by the SNP in the Smith Commission provokes cries of ‘betrayal’ because it falls short of the ultimate aim of independence. Falling short subverts prestige and so must be rejected. So we see the painful reluctance of the SNP Government to use the full powers that make the Scottish Parliament one of the strongest devolved legislatures in the world.  Like Oliver Twist they simply stand and ask for more – a habit which deprives the people of progress.

The nationalist need to identify with a single ‘nation’ appears to confer on them no other duty than that of advancing what they see as its interests.  Actions or ideas therefore come to be seen as good or bad, not on their merits, but simply by their origin. Thus the power to see resemblances between similar circumstances is lost to them.  The SNP, believing Scotland deprived, restricted and dictated to by the UK, nevertheless enthusiastically desires to share power with European nations other than England and Wales.  And UKIP steadfastly defends the merits of the multi-nation state which is the UK but refuses the very idea of a looser union with other Europeans nations.

Nationalism is a predominant force in our times, just as it was in the middle of the last century. The reasons for its re-emergence are real enough – the experience of seeing power and wealth being appropriated by the self-serving actions of a tiny corporate and governmental elite, destroying our common welfare.  Its prescription of separation, however, can only deny to us the collective actions which are the sole effective means to overcome that destruction.


First published on ‘Labour Hame’ July 2015

Like most of us I’m still trying to think through the reasons for the political cataclysm that engulfed Labour in May – in Scotland and to a lesser extent in the rest of the UK.  And one conclusion strikes me – the others, SNP, Tories, Greens, were simply better than us.  They were, and are, better politicians, better at doing the business of politics.  We were and are lousy at it.

George Osborne, averagely smart as he is, is a terrible Chancellor.  He has floored the growing economy he inherited, failed to put the public finances back in shape and fixed into place shocking inequality.  Yet all he had to do was set a simple trap in Parliament over part of the social security system and we march straight into it, arms flailing.  He has no plan for the economy only the laughable rhetoric of ‘long-term economic plan’ (rhetoric of which I suspect we will now hear nothing more).  The goal was and still is wide open for us, the public crying out for a feasible alternative to austerity, economists around the world offering that alternative, but we stand effectively silent.  Of course, in Osborne, we are confronted by a good politician who, though his actions were inconsistent and ineffective, presented the same consistent, effective message over the years – “Labour are to blame, we’re putting it right”.  And that simple act of politics left us speechless.

Same with the SNP, though they’ve done it differently. They’ve done very little over their nine years in government; by doing little they’ve not upset anyone, exuded competence and used that inaction to take underpin the claim that ‘London’ was holding Scotland back. They’ve been consistently ineffective and yet have presented the same consistent message over even more years – “Labour let Scotland down, we’re going to break free”.  And again we were speechless, except to say well, actually, we’re in favour of Scotland too, in fact, even ‘patriotic’.

Of course we’ve had times in our history when we have been rather good at politics, professionally excellent.  We knew how to speak to the electorate with words they could understand and which spoke to their hopes and fears.  We straddled the needs of working class and middle class voters, as Labour has done from its foundation, building bridges between their values.  We were better than our opponents, we found the words to shape the hope people wanted and we won elections.  Attlee won two and was in power for six years. Wilson and Blair each won three, Wilson governing for eight years in total and Blair for ten years.

Unfortunately, in Labour we are often uncomfortable with political success, especially the more recent examples of it.  There’s a strand in our thinking and culture which equates being good at the practice of politics with unwarranted slickness and unprincipled cleverness. It’s as if simply being ‘right’ should be enough to bring success, as if our ‘values’ by themselves were sufficient to gather support and as if by simply standing for office ‘our voters’ would turn out and do their duty by us.

And in our politicians there have been times when even the less perspicacious might discern a resistance to thinking and acting as though they intend to win and to learning and re-learning the necessary skills in the practice of politics that might just enable them to win.

Time for Labour to learn to be better at politics.  It’s about learning and using the skills of framing and re-framing so that we are not caught out by “Labour maxed out the credit card” and “Labour’s talking Scotland down”. It’s about learning how to make strategy for the next five and ten years out of acute understandings about our identity, our positioning and our objectives and creating the party culture and governance to stick with it. It’s about learning that shopping lists of policies for every problem under the sun don’t win elections but paying proper attention to the few big questions in voters minds do. And it’s about learning and practising the art of public narrative, finding, telling and re-telling those emotionally compelling stories of journeys made and journeys still to come which engage people with who we are and invite them to join us in what we want to do.

That learning and those skills are for our leaders, yes.  But they are also of all of us too.  What a long way there is to go – back to the place where winning is what we do.

Up Close and Personal

Published in “Towards the Local”  Scottish Fabians  March 2014

Britain sometimes feels like a failed state.  It’s a feeling which, for many, gives impetus and credence to SNP demands to separate Scotland from it all. Just as it does to UKIP’s ‘back to basics’ call to walk away from Europe.

Look at the scandals that have rocked our institutions. “The banks have forfeited public trust as a result of corruption and incompetence…… The reputation of Parliament was gravely damaged by the expenses scandal that came to light in 2009 and has been rumbling on through the courts and the media ever since. The press saw what remained of its reputation for probity shredded by the phone-hacking scandal.” We’ve had revelations about the police over cover-ups of the Hillsborough disaster and now allegations about the Met, the Police Federation and ‘plebgate’.  “The BBC is still reeling from the scandal …. of Jimmy Savile and the exposure of ludicrously generous payoffs to executives caught up in it. This summer we discovered that the British secret services have been routinely eavesdropping on the everyday activities of ordinary British citizens” and even the armed forces “have been tarnished by revelations about past brutalities in Northern Ireland and Iraq.” (1) The whole edifice of public life appears to be crumbling.

What these shocks have in common is the now-exposed culture of entitlement, backscratching and “a growing sense of impunity among small networks of elites. As British society has become more unequal it has created pockets of privilege whose inhabitants are tempted to think that the normal rules don’t apply to them.” (2) The public’s tolerance for those elites, and the managerial politics that go with it, depends on the ability of the managers to keep delivering. Once that stops, they are exposed.

And it has stopped. Right up against the wall of management failure built from targets, incentives and payment by results. A study of three NHS hospitals in England discovered that the nearer people got to the four-hour wait limit in A&E, the more likely they were to be admitted to hospital until at 3 hours 59 minutes everyone was admitted, irrespective of clinical need. Beyond 4 hours and people were left to wait much longer still as those within target range got priority. (3)  That’s the system – not ‘bad apples’; the system of central government trying to control and improve in detail what happens on the ‘front-line’. Unfortunately, if targets, or their Scottish variant ‘outcomes’, are the measures of success and the parameters for accountability, then managers organise services to meet targets not the needs of their clients. They create “poorer services for those most in need. It is the vulnerable, the marginalised, the disadvantaged who suffer most from payment by results.” (4)  We get Mid-Staffs hospital and the three-star Haringey Council which met its targets and failed Baby P.

So ministers push for better.  Michael Russell puts heavy pressure on Scottish Colleges as only he knows how and Jeremy Hunt regularly phones up English hospital bosses. MSPs and MPs put pressure on Michael Russell and Jeremy Hunt. The word goes out – central government has these requirements of you, so shape up: these are the necessary “outcomes” for “success”- deliver them. Unfortunately if you are doing the wrong thing, then doing it better makes you wronger, not righter. And it seems we are getting ‘wronger‘ in many areas of life.

Like the UK as a whole, Scotland is sharply divided by inequality and this division has increased over three decades. Our economy today fails to provide adequate work or income to a large minority – 20% of workers are paid less than that it’s possible to live on (up from 18% in 2012) (5).  Considerable spending on Scottish public services over the years has failed to correct the impact of that inequality. The negative outcomes of failure drive current public spending. Local housing policy must deal with failures in the housing market; health policy struggles against our failure to maintain the health of families, many sick with the diseases of poverty – obesity, alcoholism, drug dependence, disability;  schools, with too many children disadvantaged by family “failures” again associated with poverty, fail to keep up with standards in the rest of the world. John Seddon reckons up to 80% of what is done in local authorities today is driven by what he calls ‘failure demand’ (6).

Money is poured in. Scottish public spending rose from about £8200 per head in 1997/8 to over £12,000 per head in 2011/12 (7). Benefit from that spending has not increased in the same way.  We still have some of the worst health in Europe and our education results do little to impress. Even the places we build are rarely better than mediocre says the Scottish Government’s own Council of Economic Advisers. Increased public spending accompanied by lower levels of ‘output’ suggests that the ‘productivity’ of UK public services has declined significantly: the average “bang for each buck”  is estimated to have fallen by 13.4% between 1997 and 2007 (8).

Then, when public services no longer operate as they should, the elite networks allow markets in where they shouldn’t, despite having just experienced the worst market failure in a century. We place public security and safety in the hands of private firms, disastrously as we saw with G4S and the Olympics. We pay people to look after their health and shed weight. We even pay school children to read books. Much of the essential state role of protecting its citizens is transferred into corporate hands – prisons, hospitals, intelligence.  The marketisation of what were previously public services (what George Lakoff (9) calls ‘privateering’) removes democratic accountability under the guise of ‘commercial confidentiality’ and converts the public’s money into private profit. That all changes our social morality (10).

Does it therefore surprise us – under the weight of institutional scandal and the failure with impunity of the managerial elites –  that trust in British institutions, British politicians and the democratic process itself is all but destroyed?  Does it surprise us that when the British state, much of it now in private hands, seems to act largely in its own interests not in those of the public, that the public walk away in disgust or boredom?

Democratic renewal is now urgent – changing how things are done, changing the relationships of power that now characterise who we have become.

Many on the left cite income inequality as the cause of the disconnected society we now inhabit. Professor Danielle Allen says (11) the reverse is true: social disconnection is the cause of inequality. “To achieve connectedness you have to have an egalitarian ethos, but if you don’t start to build institutional channels for connection, it doesn’t matter what type of egalitarian ethos you have, you won’t be able to make use of it…..Building a connected society is about empowering the disempowered”.

Professor Elizabeth Anderson similarly contends (12) that equality does not consist in an equal distribution of a particular good, whether income, capabilities or welfare, but in egalitarian social relations: relationships of equal power, esteem and standing between citizens in a society where there is a wide dispersion of social and economic power and a vibrant, alert and widely-engaged democracy.

Roberto Unger talks (13) of the goal of the left being ‘deep freedom’ – a devotion to the empowerment of the ordinary person, a raising up of ordinary life to a higher plane of intensity, scope and capability. He says it can only be grasped and realised through change of our institutions and practices – not just through a one-time change either, but through a democratic practice that can generate ongoing renewal of the institutional order of society.

For these thinkers the pursuit of personal freedom and equality of voice go hand in hand; democratic and institutional reform are the partners of social and economic equality.  As Unger also says “Constitutional arrangements should hasten the pace of politics, the facility for structural change, as well as raising its temperature, the level of popular engagement in public life.”

This reform is not simply a plaything of political ‘techies’.  It is democratic renewal from the ground up, constitutional and institutional reform as if people mattered.  It is participative and deliberative. It cannot be other than founded in subsidiarity.  It is necessary to any attempt to organise and manage governmental services based on productive, co-operative, learning relationships between receiver and provider (14).

Of course, there’s no one magic bullet. We need economic reform to found the ‘new economy’ of which Labour now speaks.  We probably need a new Act of Union to re-balance and make transparent the connections between all parts of the United Kingdom.  But I cannot see any realistic place to start the process of institutional, democratic and service reform of the kind we want to see other than where people are, at the level of place and community. In the local. Up close and personal.

Even so – it’s a big task. Everything pushes the other way – towards the centre, towards the big, towards the private, towards the elite.  To succeed, and to continue to succeed with renewal on the scale we need will require action that is both fast and slow, big and small. One big step and many small ones.

The big step is this: by act of the Scottish Parliament to devolve all public service provision to the local, except those which by their nature should be specifically reserved to Scottish government.   It’s familiar territory. The same ‘reserved powers’ principle is embedded in the Act which set up our Scottish Parliament and itself reflects the principle of subsidiarity upon which governance in most of the rest of Europe is based.

Steady change will follow thereafter only if local democracies are free to develop as suits their local circumstance.  Free to merge or divide as works best, to adopt different voting systems, free to delegate budgets to lower levels, to manage services as works best locally. It means an almighty democratic reform of the way in which we do local politics and local government: making it participative, pluralist and deliberative.  With Unger’s increased pace and increased temperature in local institutions our larger democracies will change in consequence;  local democracy, close to home, is after all where people learn first how to walk. And with public services placed at local levels, where the paths of information and control are shorter and where productive alliances between users and suppliers can govern their provision,  purpose will replace targets as the management principle (15), making money better spent. Intimate local connections, not top-down targets, will manage complexity and variance.

There are many tools then that local democracies can use – the skills of designers in re-shaping service provision, new institutions like municipal banks, new service co-operatives, local audit systems, community enterprise and new instruments by which land values from development can accrue to communities.  Of course, the Council Tax will be an early casualty to be replaced by taxation that is more local, flexible and fair.

If the Scottish Parliament is to grasp this next stage of devolution its role will change. It will leave behind the detailed management of public services and reach up to grasp fully its ambition as a legislature: setting standards, enhancing our rights and freedoms, taking on vested interests. It might, for instance, extend the Freedom of Information Act to companies delivering public services, create basic guarantees in health, stop the exploitation of charities law by private schools, outlaw secret societies in the police and justiciary, pass development land through public ownership, establish gender balance wherever public money is spent, and so much more. The Scottish government will run those services and institutions which are necessarily national and otherwise concentrate activities which provoke change: on learning, on sharing, on guidance, on improvement – government as a university of democracy and public well-being. And crucially it will ensure, through re-allocation of resources under its control, that justice and equality between poor communities and richer communities, is sustained and strengthened.

Done for the right reasons, and given time, by using roughly the powers the Scottish Parliament already has, we may well be able in this way to re-formulate the boundaries between private and public, re-balance that divide in favour of the common good and the public realm, control the excesses of elites and question the morality of markets.  Untidy, diverse and uncontrolled it will certainly be, and to accept that is hard for those currently in power, but I believe it to be the right and adventurous path.


(1) David Runciman  “The Crisis of British Democracy” Juncture IPPR December 2013

(2) ibid

(3) Simon Caulkin  “Kittens are evil: heresies in public policy” 2013  http://www.simoncaulkin.com/article/406

(4) Toby Lowe   “Payment by results – a ‘dangerous idiocy’ that makes staff tell lies” Guardian Professional  February 2013

(5) KPMG   http://www.kpmg.com/UK/en/IssuesAndInsights/ArticlesPublications/Documents/PDF/Latest News/living-wage-research-october-2013-1.pdf

(6) Ibid  Simon Caulkin

(7) http://www.scottisheconomywatch.com/brian-ashcrofts-scottish/public-spending/ using figures from GERS.  Figures are total managed expenditure in 2011/12 prices

(8) Institute of Fiscal Studies   http://www.ifs.org.uk/bns/bn92.pdf

(9) George Lakoff  “The Political Mind”  Viking Penguin 2008

(10) See Michael Sandel “What Money Can’t Buy” 2012

(11) http://www.newstatesman.com/politics/politics/2012/12/danielle-allen-labour’s-new-heavyweight  December 2012

(12) quoted in Nick Pearce “The Future of Equality: What should social democrats believe?”  IPPR  September 2013

(13) Roberto Unger “Why the left should abandon equality” Juncture IPPR October 2013.  This essay represents an excerpt from Roberto Unger’s forthcoming book, “The Religion of the Future,” to be published by Harvard University Press in the spring of 2014

(14) see Graeme Cook and Rick Muir “The Relational State” IPPR  November 2012  and Rick Muir and Imogen Parker “Many to Many”  IPPR  February 2014   www.ippr.org/images/media/files/publication/2014/02/Many-to-many_Feb2014_11865.pdf

(15) https://www.vanguard-method.com

Evidence to CoSLA Commission on Strengthening Local Democracy

December 2013


1. Why Local Democracy is important and what it can achieve

Scotland has no real local democracy

Compared with the rest of Europe Scotland doesn’t really have local democracy at all. We have fewer local authorities, fewer councillors, fewer candidates standing for election. Councils have limited discretion over a tiny proportion of their revenues and their area can be close to that of smaller European nations. Eberhart Bort, with others, provides these figures (1)

It should be noted that the communities in other countries with what seem to us tiny local authorities suffer no diminution in wellbeing compared with Scotland; indeed the opposite is more often the case.

The figures that follow about participation in elections signal the malaise in Scotland’s local democracies. Why is it like that? The many reasons will include the lack of independent powers, the lack of taxation powers, the size of local authorities, the electoral system, the culture of customer rather than citizen.

Our larger democracy is founded in the local -­‐ and it’s failing too.

Most people’s experience of our democracy is at the local level around issues that affect the place where they live -­ from measures to make a dangerous road safer to whether or not a school should close.

For most people, though, even local democracy doesn’t work well -­ decisions are taken somewhere else rather than where they live. The geographical size of many Scttish local authorities makes that inevitable: Highland Region is bigger than Belgium. Major towns like Kirkcaldy or East Kilbride or Cumbernauld lack any statutory self-­governance. Even in cities people are distanced from decisions through centralised and remote management and decision-­making as well as simply their population size.

Local democracy ought to be the ‘entry level’ for citizens to experience a wider democracy. It is in a sense a school for citizenship. If that ‘entry level’ doesn’t work well enough then our larger democracy will not work well enough either. The failure to allow our democracy to work at a local level is one of the reasons why our national democracy at a Scottish and UK level is characterised by disillusion, distance and distrust.

The failure of our democratic institutions perhaps ought not to surprise us. There are large and powerful anti‐democracy forces at work.

The UK is one of the most unequal countries in the developed world. A significant growth in income inequality happened through the eighties and early nineties, slowed but did not decline from the late nineties through to the late noughties and has increased again during the current financial crisis. The Gini coefficient measures inequality and it rose from 26 in 1979 to 41 in 2009 (2). Inequality causes many social ills, including the destruction of social trust and a consequent decline in social capital (3). Without social trust and strong social capital democratic participation flounders.

The same effect can be seen with the growth of large and global corpora;ons and the impact on local communities when they move into them. American studies show, when a Wal-­mart store moves into a small rural town, it retains fewer non-­profit groups and social capital-­generating associations (such as churches, political organisations, and business groups) per head than towns without the store. Wal-­Mart’s presence also depresses civic participation and is associated with lower voter turnout in the 2000 presidential election in communities where it is present (4). The pattern of our economy now hinders our democracy.

Large and powerful vested interests prefer a world without strong democracy: regulation is lighter and tax-­evasion easier. The world‐view that promotes their interests as being in everyone’s interest is widely held and strongly advocated, embedded in everyday frames of thought for forty years. Professor George Lakoff asserts that “the anti­‐democratic mode of thought -­ better funded, better organised and more thoroughly worked out -­ has been winning and fundamentally changing how our lives are governed.” (5)

If local democracy is the ‘entry level’ of democracy for most people, then to strengthen and re-­ invigorate local democracy is the first step in pressing back against anti‐democratic forces.

But there are, of course, ‘anti‐local’ vested interests as well, the prime one being central government itself. Central government -­ politicians, civil servants and now all the many creature agencies of central government -­ instinctively distrust and dislike the diversity that greater local democracy will inevitably promote. The shift of power away from the centre that stronger local democracy implies is therefore invariably resisted. Indeed for many years power has travelled in the other direction -­ towards an agglomeration in the centre.

Centralised institutions and control are sources of failure.

Local democracy now finds itself squeezed between large and powerful central government and large and powerful corporate interests. This reduces communal wellbeing and imposes costs of failure.

Large corporations prefer uniformity of product or service throughout the globe, if they are global companies, or throughout a country if they work within national markets. Apple or Microsoft are the same throughout the world; Deloittes or Price Waterhouse offer financial and economic advice rooted in the prevailing global economic philosophy regardless of the needs of local economies; British national house-­builders largely build the same ‘pattern‐book’ housing whether it be Dunstable or Dunfermline, regardless of the traditions and conditions of each place.

Over the years government has become more centralised and centralised government, itself a large organisation, also prefers uniformity of provision. It closely regulates, without overwhelmingly evident success, the now-­privatised former functions of government such as railways or energy. In that reduced number of public services which remain with local government uniformity is enforced through targets and regulations of various kinds, regardless of local circumstance. And where it detects ‘failure’ in either, central government imposes direct control through ‘special measures’ or rapidly responds to calls to ‘tighten regulation’.

There is a connection, however, between the centralisation of government and the ‘failure’ of public services and of our democracy.

That ‘failure’ is significant. Scotland has only slightly less inequality than the UK as a whole. Like the UK as a whole, its popula;on is sharply divided and this division has increased over three decades. Our economy today fails to provide adequate work or income to a large minority -­ 20% of workers are paid less than a living wage (up from 18% in 2012) (6) . Considerable spending on Scttish public services over the years has failed to correct the impact of that inequity. In fact, the negative outcomes of that failure drive current public spending. Local housing policy must deal with failures in the housing market; health policy struggles against our failure to maintain the health of families, many sick with the diseases of poverty -­ obesity, alcoholism, drug dependence, disability; schools, with too many children disadvantaged by family “failures” again associated with poverty, fail to keep up with standards in the rest of the world.

To counteract these failings, Scottish public spending rose from about £8200 per head in 1997/8 to over £12,000 per head in 2011/12 (7). Benefit from that spending has not increased in the same way. We still have some of the worst health in Europe and our education results do little to impress. Even the places we build are rarely better than mediocre says the Scottish Government’s own Council of Economic Advisers. Increased public spending accompanied by lower levels of ‘output’ suggests that the ‘productivity’ of public services has declined significantly (8).

It seems the direction and management of public services have become distanced from real knowledge of what’s needed and what actually works to fulfil their purpose.

The prevailing (though not exclusive) organisational and management stance in both private and public sectors is that bigness is beneficial and that uniformity of product or provision is desirable. In government this desire to improve manifests through the imposition of required measures – ­regulation, targets and occasionally direct intervention (or at least the threat of it). Uniform regula;ons govern the practice of social workers and of road repair workers. The same traffic regulations apply from Deal to Dalwhinnie. Targets govern practice in hospitals, schools and police. Ministers are able to intervene over every planning application in the land, even a shop advertisement.

A growing number of thinkers, a leader among whom is John Seddon (9), say that this reliance on management through required ac;ons or measures is the cause of much of the malaise, especially when imposed from ‘outside’. Centralisation, targets and regulation, even the reliance on measuring ‘output’, simply don’t work in providing what people need. They just create or confirm ‘failure’ which then creates a social demand to which public services, especially local public services, must in turn respond. In the private sector W Edwards Deming famously described this pattern as “Let’s make toast (your) way. You burn and I’ll scrape”. In local authorities John Seddon reckons up to 80% of what is done today can be driven by what he calls ‘failure demand’ (10) -­ or burnt toast.

The argument is that arbitrary measures such as targets and service levels quickly become the de-­facto purpose of an organisation, a purpose so strong it is even sometimes met through cheating and manipulation. Such measures certainly constrain the methods and practices of organisations, with work focussed on complying with the de-­facto ‘purpose’ of targets and regulation. The argument then says that if, instead, purpose is allowed to be defined in ‘customer’ terms -­ for government that is broadly the well-­being of communities and individuals -­ then that liberates the methods that can be used and so encourages innovation and reduces failure. This is especially so if the power to decide is placed in the hands of front-­line staff.

We know in local government that what makes up the ‘purpose’ of community and individual well-­being is best determined as close as possible to those communities and individuals. That means that we should no longer talk about service ‘delivery’ at a local level -­ delivery assumes an active ‘deliverer’ and a passive receiver. Rather we should talk about how we best determine, with local communi;es and individuals, what the local public purpose is -­ and how best to meet it with public services that are not driven by failure but by genuine public value and the active participation of citizens in shaping them.

In other words, if we want to overcome failures in our economy and public services, large scale failures -­ we need to talk about local democracy and how local government can best serve it.

Place and relationships at the centre of well-­being

Wal-­mart diminishes democracy in places where it has established itself because it undermines relationships -­ shopping becomes purely transactional and loses elements of personal and communal interaction that local shops support. In the same way, targets and regulations diminish democracy because they treat citizens as customers -­ as passive ‘receivers’ of the transaction of targeted services -­ and not as participants with whom to interact.

Conversely, well-­being improves if relationships improve and part of the task of government is therefore to sustain relationships between citizens and, in some cases, to nurture those relationships as a means of governing and providing public services to improve the well-­being of communities and individuals (11).

Relationships are largely contained within the places in which people live, even in the jet and internet age. Places which sustain relatoonships are better for it and so are the communities which those places contain (12). Well-­being of place, well-­being of community and the well-­being of democracy go together.

The Christie Commission was established to map out the future of public services. It set out guiding principles: a concentration on prevention and outcomes, a focus on place, and the integration of services -­ all imbued with the idea of ‘co-­production’ between service provider and service user. In other words, public purpose determined through democracy and government at the level of place.

A focus on place and its well-­being enables necessary attention to outcomes that really matter. It guides investment towards building healthy and supportive communities. It is the key to open the door to thinking collaboratively about prevention and prosperity. It is the lynchpin of local leadership in the years ahead. The journey towards that ideal requires mobilising civic assets, in the widest sense, and working across the divides of institutions and services, markets and communities. Building that new ‘relationship ecology’ can happen only at the scale and within the governance of the places people inhabit. In other words -­ it can only happen through local democracy.

Making it happen means thinking differently about the conversations we have with citizens about public services. It means thinking differently about our resources -­ about how we create local assets, how we manage those assets and and cultivate social capital. It means aligning those resources for a common purpose. It means thinking differently about governance, building it on relationships and collaboration, building democracy.

So places -­ and the relationships within places -­ stand at the centre. Past failure in concisely creating successful and resilient places helped produce the negative outcomes now driving public spending. If we invest in and strengthen place -­ and all the human connections, attachments and assets that make it work -­ then we provide the basis for public collaboration and strengthened democracy. In turn they are the means to provide the improved outcomes on which our common future depends. Strong, resilient, connected places promote local prosperity and that prosperity itself provides the foundation for social improvement and reduces pressure on public services.

This all puts larger and different burdens on local democracy, governance and leadership. All need to know that places, successful or unsuccessful, don’t just drop from the sky. They are made by our human action, either through thought and purposeful deeds -­ or through accident. Those that are thoughtfully and deliberately made are likely to carry and embody the values and aspirations of the local democracies which enable them.


2. A route map to delivering stronger local democracy in Scotland

Places Need Leaders

Local democracies will remain as enfeebled as they currently are if they do not have necessary powers to shape the places which embody them.

Where we live affects how we live and how well we live; the quality of our place shapes the well-­being of each one of us. Some places are successful in improving our well-­being. Others are not; and, if they are really bad, they may lessen our well-­being – harming our economy, society and environment.

For all those concerned with democracy, the quality of place matters. It helps, or hinders, efforts to achieve economic, social or environmental goals. For politicians in particular, looking to the success of their place helps them do what they were elected to do.

But our places, especially new ones, are not as good as they ought to be. Almost all the professionals involved in making or re-­making the built environment in Scotland say that, by and large, the best and the average places in Europe are a very long way ahead of the best and the average places in Scotland (13). They work better for the people who live and work in them.

Scotland needs better places. So how do we get there?

Leadership within the local democracy is of first importance. It comes in two parts: ‘leadership ability’ -­ the skills, knowledge and competence of individuals to lead -­ and ‘leadership capacity’ -­ the resources, processes and legal powers through which the leadership ability of individuals within an organisation is either facilitated or hindered. If Scottish places -­ and by consequence, Scottish local democracy -­ are to be improved then ability and capacity must be developed together; they are two sides of the same coin. It is in improving the capacity for leadership that significant challenges present themselves.

Places are made through the interaction of public and private institutions and interests, through the state on one hand and the market on the other. Today, in Scotland, the private sector, the ‘market’, dominates the making of the places in which we live, often through large national, even global, companies. Local purpose for the place, as expressed through local democracy, is effectively absent because the local state is hollowed out, lacking the necessary powers, and is congested with many agencies, all with their own priorities and ‘measures’ -­ targets and regulations.

If local democracies are to shape their own places then they must at least have and own the powers they need to shape the real estate market in their locality rather than have their place shaped by it. That will require legislation in Parliament.

New local powers should be provided to allow the provision of collective goods -­ the infrastructure of utilities, public transport, public realm and open space -­ in advance of development. Powers should also be created to enable the local state to acquire at least temporary ownership of significant development sites in advance of development. And greater upstream resources, perhaps derived from the power to participate in the increased value land assumes from planning permission and then development, should be provided and devoted to creating effective plans and development frameworks by local democracies. Lastly, new democratic local public institutions should be allowed and devised to spread risk and enhance, even realise for the public good, the increased long-­‐term value from creating successful places.

Detailed proposals to increase local democratic leadership capacity can be found in “Places Need Leaders” by David Adams and Trevor Davies (14).


(1 ) Eberhard Bort, Robin McAlpine and Gordon Morgan, The Silent Crisis: Failure and Revival in Local Democracy in Scotland, The Jimmy Reid Foundation, 2012

(2) Households Below Average Income, DWP (1994/95 onwards) and the Family Expenditure Survey (earlier years) obtained via data published by the Institute of Fiscal Studies

(3) The Spirit Level Richard Wilkinson and Kate PickeL Allen Lane 2009
(4) Wal-­Mart and Social Capital, Stephan J. Goetz and Anil Rupasingha, American Journal of Agricultural Economics, Dec. 2006.

(5) The Political Mind. George Lakoff Viking Penguin 2008
(6) KPMG http://www.kpmg.com/UK/en/IssuesAndInsights/ArticlesPublications/Documents/PDF/Latest News/living-­wage‐research-­october-­2013-­1.pdf
(7) http://www.scottsheconomywatch.com/brian-­ashcroas-­scottish/public-­spending/ using figures from GERS. Figures are total managed expenditure in 2011/12 prices

(8) Institute of Fiscal Studies http://www.ifs.org.uk/bns/bn92.pdf

(9) https://www.vanguard-­‐method.com

(10) quoted by David Boyle “The Struggle for the Soul of Public Services” in Town and Country Planning November 2013

(11) see IPPR ‘The Relational State” November 2012
(12) Jane Jacobs “The Death and Life of Great America Cities” -­‐ and many other authors since

(13) http://www.scotland.gov.uk/Publications/2010/12/31110906/0 “Delivering Better Places in Scotland” David Adams, Steve Tiesdell and George Weeks

(14) http://www.ads.org.uk/urbanism/features/leadership‐is-­key-­to-­creating-­better-­places


First published in the Scotsman 22 December 2012

Thanks to Lynne Truss we all now know the joke about how a simple comma changes a panda from a cuddly black and white vegetarian that eats shoots and leaves into a mysterious gun-toting, but hungry, restaurant killer who eats, shoots and leaves.

That’s four words. Even single words can carry huge meaning.  One simple Twitter hashtag caught everything I felt after President Obama’s victory – #phew.

Even more powerful are emotions generated simply by choosing what word to place alongside another. Those simple word pairs can push us into opposing frames of mind.  For many years clever conservative politicians here and in America were successful in always associating the word “tax” with the word “burden” – the “tax burden” on individuals and the “tax burden” on companies.  Most of us don’t actually enjoy paying tax so the association of tax with “burden” easily took root. Then they were able to introduce the natural follow-on idea of “tax relief” – throwing off the tax burden and setting companies and individuals free from its cumbersome weight. And of course, because wealthy individuals and companies have a larger “burden” to carry, they conclude it’s right they should also have larger “relief”.  It’s that idea of ‘setting free’ which underlies George Osborne’s decisions to cut corporation tax on companies and income tax on top earners.

That’s beginning to shift now. Others are taking the idea of “burden” and saying of wealthy companies and individuals “those with the broadest shoulders should bear the biggest burden”.  This rings true because it holds an idea of fairness. UK Uncut and others, in criticising companies and individuals who use all kinds of methods to avoid tax, can now even associate the word “tax” with the word “cheat”.  And again it rings true; we all know paying tax is a common investment in common benefits, like hospitals, roads or the army. If you benefit from that investment, but don’t pay your share, then you’re cheating on the rest of us. Starbucks, Amazon and Google are suffering from that “tax cheat” accusation right now.

Everyone, politicians included, try to change the way others think by careful choice of words.  Here’s another example. “Do you agree that Scotland should be an independent country?”

As the SNP government’s proposed referendum question it’s short, plain, and to the point.  And, as we would expect, very clever in its use of words.  It almost makes us feel it would be somehow wrong, unpatriotic, to say no. There’s a ‘Braveheart’ emotion in there which is about standing tall, planting our feet in the promised land, strong and free.

Take it apart and look at it.

For instance, why even use the simple word “be” rather than the word “become”? “Be” assumes independence is just a simple switch over from one state of being to another and that the result of that switch somehow can only be benign. But Scotland’s been part of the United Kingdom for 300 years; independence for Scotland wouldn’t simply be a switch over – it would necessarily be the result of a lengthy and perhaps difficult period of adjustment and negotiation with the remainder of the United Kingdom. “Become” would better reflect the real world and the often messy process of political change; it implies that there’s a process, a transition that may or may not hold hidden pitfalls. Therefore, from the SNP’s point of view, “become” is a word to be avoided. “Be” is much more comforting and avoids all those ideas of process and difficulty.

The word they can’t avoid is “independent” and why would they – it’s a strong, forthright, stand-up-for-yourself sort of word.  Those on the other side of the argument, who argue that Scotland and the rest of the UK are all better off if we stay together, see the word “separation” as much more descriptive of what is being proposed – the separation of Scotland from the rest of the United KIngdom.  It’s an accurate description of the choice we’ll have to make, just as “independent” is accurate. But it carries with it quite a different set of emotions – of uncertainty, of going it alone, even of pain – the emotions of the negative answer to the referendum question.  Even though that answer is, at the moment, the one most people in Scotland seem to favour, “separation” is a word the Scottish government will avoid at all costs.

Even the word “country” in the question is chosen with care.  The SNP government could have used “nation” or even “state”.  Any would have been accurate, so why choose country?  Perhaps because the UK is made up of four countries anyway and most agree that Scotland is a different, even separate, country from England, Wales and Northern Ireland. Then, of course, it’s not too big a mental step from “different” and “separate” to “independent”.  But use the word “nation”, and especially the word “state”, and our feelings change. If Scotland becomes an independent and separate state from the rest of the UK it could be just like its other neighbour France – and the implications of passports, ambassadors, trade arguments and illegal immigrants all come to mind. That’s not a prospect that the SNP government want us to dwell upon, so “country” is the favoured word.

Even “do you agree” implies more than a “yes” or a “no”.  “Well, it depends…” or “not right now” would be more realistic answers when so much of the success or failure of the independence project would depend on the details of the deal negotiated, out of public view, between Scottish and UK governments after the referendum is done and dusted.  But “yes” or “no” is all we’ll get.

Is there a better alternative question? Maybe. And the Electoral Commission will have to think about it. But one of the arguments against referenda is that it is almost impossible to craft a completely neutral question – and that those in power will seek to influence the answer by manipulating the words. As we see.


First published in ‘The Scotsman’ 11 December 2012


It’s in very tasteful green and red hand-painted tartan and it sits at the front of my kitchen shelf – my small 1997 ‘Yes Yes” souvenir mug. “Yes” to the question on whether there should be a Scottish Parliament and “yes” to it having powers to vary the rate of income tax up or down.  I’m still proud to see it there. Winning that referendum was a great achievement and, I remember, brought hope and excitement to me and to many people in Scotland.

But today, fifteen years later, there’s a sense of disappointment that ordinary Scottish people have not seen  those hopes fulfilled. There haven’t been the economic and social changes we hoped might start to flow.

The 1997 devolution settlement was a good one. Fundamentally it said that everything was devolved to the Scottish parliament except those things that were better dealt with together at a UK level – like our common security through defence and diplomacy and the social security we all share, or the policies to manage and develop our shared economy.  Otherwise a whole chunk of the apparatus of the state was taken and moved from London to Edinburgh. Still thinking of my kitchen,  it was like breaking off a big piece of oatcake and putting it on another plate.

But that wasn’t meant to be the end of the matter. To my mind devolution was meant to trigger something more, a different and renewed form of government within Scotland that would bring benefit to Scottish people. That hasn’t happened.  It’s just like we’re still operating the big old Westminster state – but from Edinburgh.

The first two Scottish Parliaments had Labour and Liberal Democrat coalitions and there seemed neither the understanding nor the will to break out from that old Westminster mould. So much time was taken up with making coalition work; and coalition rarely does anything radical, always compromising downwards. That only left room for small pet policies, trying to make the big bureaucratic Westminster ways work better. Perhaps if devolution’s godfather, Donald Dewar, had lived to lead those early parliaments for longer then things would have been different  – but we’ll never know.

The second two Parliaments have been dominated by the SNP who, of course, don’t want devolution to work and have done little with it, using and reinforcing people’s genuine sense of disappointment to press their case for independence and separation.

So it’s encouraging to see that Labour’s ‘Devolution Commission’, promised by Johann Lamont when she was elected leader a year ago, started meeting a few weeks back.  It could be the beginning of some new thinking.  But from reading what it is setting out to do and looking at its limited membership, my fear is that it will simply be trying to move a few more crumbs of the oatcake from one plate to another. There’s a really good case for moving more power to Scotland and for making the boundaries between Westminster and Edinburgh clearer and that all needs to be worked out. But if that’s all, then it’s just nibbling at the edges of the issue: trying to make the old big bureaucratic Westminster ways work better in Edinburgh.

The opportunities are bigger and more exciting than that and it would serve Scotland, and Labour, better if it’s Commission could show both imagination and courage to grasp hold of them.

Let’s look at what we have now, fifteen years after I bought my “Yes Yes” mug.  We have a government in Edinburgh which has taken powers away from our local democracy to itself. We have a Parliament which  mostly manages what we have, rather than legislating for the future. We have communities where people’s health is still the worst in Europe.  Our dependence on alcohol is still wrecking lives. We still build places to live which are mediocre at best. Even our education, once the envy of the world, is beginning to slip away.  That wasn’t how it was meant to be.  And nibbling at the edge of the oatcake isn’t going to address those things.

To my mind what is needed is to now take the radical idea of devolution seriously and take it to its next, deeper, more transforming stage – and that is devolving all that can be devolved to local communities, local organisations, local councils, local people. I say that simply because I believe it will achieve better results than trying to make the big bureaucratic Westminster model work better.

There’s a story I tell which shows why.  Many years ago when I was first a councillor in Edinburgh, Wester Hailes was being built to house people displaced from rotten homes in the city centre.  (Again good intentions that didn’t quite work out the way they were meant to.) At the time the Council thought, rightly, it would be good to have trees in the big open spaces between the housing blocks.  So workmen would come and plant saplings – but within days they’d all be uprooted, bashed or broken as local kids set about them for whatever reasons of resentment or distrust.  Again the Council workmen would plant the saplings and again they’d be destroyed.  And again. One day, by accident, a trailer load of saplings was left out overnight and next morning they’d all gone, to be found in the days that followed planted outside people’s homes, watched and watered.  Those trees flourished and grew. A sense of personal ownership, care for what they could see, brought community benefit in a way the Council on its own never could.

Radical downward devolution is something nationalists are unlikely to do. It’s not in their nature. They believe in putting power into the nation state. It’s happening in Scotland today. But there’s hope in a strand of Labour thought which is quite different  – of co-operatives, self-education, trades unions and municipal enterprise – that says by doing things together at a local, workplace or community level we achieve more than either individuals or a big bureaucratic state can do. Trees planted in the care of local people grow.


First published in “The Scotsman’ 15 September 2012


“We are now approaching Falkirk High”.  On the train from Edinburgh to Glasgow that’s what you expect. Same journey. Same announcement.  You’d be insane if you got on that train one day and expected to hear “We are now approaching Lochaber”.

That’s my take on Albert Einstein anyway.  The great genius once said “Insanity is this: doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results.” Same journey. Same results.  If you want something different you have to do something different.

Does anyone dispute that our country and our economy really need something different? The British people don’t.  Polling in Britain by eminent American pollster Stan Greenberg found that two out of three people think our economy is “too harsh on ordinary working people”.  And by a margin of 47% to 35%, British people think “we need to fundamentally change the way our country and economy work”. Those are clarion calls for change.

And what does David Cameron do?  Well – he has a re-shuffle and he proposes to change some planning laws.   The same old idea that cutting ‘red tape’ somehow produces growth hasn’t worked before and won’t work now. He’s fallen into the Einstein insanity trap.

And what does our First Minister do? Well –  he has a re-shuffle and he thinks about changing some planning laws.  With almost all the powers of a full nation state at her command, his re-shuffled Deputy has just commissioned some of our Scottish great and good to consider how to perk up town centres. Alongside David Cameron, Alex Salmond has fallen into the Einstein insanity trap.

The only difference between them is that Cameron falls in out of misplaced ideology, while Salmond does it for a rather better reason: strategy – the less he does the more he can blame ‘lack of independent powers’ as a reason for nothing much happening.

They ignore the urgent need to think differently, act differently and seek out different results.  There’s another hugely important scientist, a physicist like Einstein, who fifty years ago wrote a book, “The Structure of Scientific Revolutions”, introducing the world to a new idea: the paradigm shift. Thomas Kuhn’s great notion was – and here I extend it beyond the world of scientific research – that for a while everyone shares a common ideas framework and works away within that trying to solve all the puzzles that it throws up, make it work better.  Until something happens which shifts everyone over to the other side of the street:  a paradigm shift. That’s what the British people in that poll are asking for – a fundamental shift in the way our country and economy work.

Instead our leaders – Cameron and Salmond – sit inside the old political paradigm.  A re-shuffle here, a policy review there. They are, good for them, trying to solve the puzzles, trying to do things better – but they’re trying to do the wrong things better.  And it’s not just them. There’s not much sign Liberal Democrats or Labour in Scotland are making efforts to shift their thinking either.

We live in a time of almost unprecedented global financial and economic decline and a public spending drought. And, to our shame, we live in a country, Scotland, which has the widest gap between the richest 20% and the poorest 20% than any other country in Europe.  So it’s time to stop trying to do the wrong things better, time to stop believing, insanely, that we’ll get better results without doing different things, time to make that paradigm shift.

Not every change requires money throwing at it: we could make efforts to break down the power of vested interests, from the banks to our largely foreign-owned press; we could enhance our freedoms by giving the poor better access to justice and employees equal rights to shareholders in running big companies; we could make public services better by making them local and sharing their control with people who use them.

The most urgent matter, though, is to shift the way our economy works. It’s insane to think that doing what we’ve done until now is going to get the different results people want. It’s insane to believe, as Cameron and Salmond both do, that cutting regulation, reducing business taxes and ‘freeing up markets’ is going to get more people into productive and useful work when all the evidence says doing just that was at the root of our economic collapse. Insane to think that more and more growth is possible without the ice-caps melting away.  As economist Kenneth Boulding says: “Anyone who believes exponential growth can go on forever in a finite world is either a madman – or an economist.”

The New Economic Foundation (www.neweconomics.org) is out campaigning now on what it calls ‘The Great Transition’. It sets aside the foundation of orthodox economics, and what you and I often believe, that more is always better.  There’s no doubt that the poorest in the world need more – but you and I? More stuff? Really? I doubt it.  What many of us want is more security, more fairness, more time, satisfying work and enough to raise our children well and look after ourselves when we get old.  We want clean air, good relationships, health.

And it is a valuation all those good, but outside-the-market, parts of our lives that marks the starting point for NEF.  Normal more is better economics is turned on its head. By squeezing that gap between rich and poor and taxing unearned wealth, by making markets work for all of us not just the top 20%, the well-off will consume less and the headline indicators we’re used to, such as GDP (which measures ‘stuff’), will fall. But the ‘real value’ in the good, sociable, secure, healthy parts of our lives will grow at the same time, exceeding the drop in GDP.  Happiness and satisfaction, in place of ever-increasing ‘stuff’, is the great transition we need, say NEF.

Now that’s called changing trains.


First published in ‘The Scotsman’  28 August 2012


I need to say it quietly these days – I never watch sport.  Here we are, the golden Olympics just over and the Paralympics happening, the nation still enthralled and I don’t watch sport.  Perhaps I should practice the Mobot in front of the mirror and just pretend.

But I was as enthralled as everyone when Team GB medals kept rolling in. It was the relief and joy on the faces of the athletes and the almost equal joy in the roars of the spectators.  That grin on Mo Farah’s face. Chris Hoy’s tears.  Wiggo on his throne.  And Jessica Ennis seeming to float on air.

The extraordinary opening ceremony too. A bold thing to put the NHS centre stage but Danny Boyle was right.  When we come down to it, the NHS is one of our country’s institutions we value above all else.  It is just as much a huge British achievement as all those medals from Team GB. It’s something that we made together as a country, as a community, it belongs to all of us and it feels good to celebrate it.

Later, when Jessica Ennis went back to her home town, the welcome was almost louder and more ecstatic than in the Olympic stadium itself. All Sheffield seemed to be there.  They were celebrating Sheffield as much as Jessica Ennis’ achievements.  Same with Chris Hoy in Edinburgh.  There’s his golden post box on the corner of Princes Street and locals and tourists queuing up to be photographed, grinning, next to it.

It was that burst-forth sense of belonging, and joy in the achievement of others as well as ourselves, which struck me.  We’re such a funny mix of a country, always have been, people migrating in and out, different beliefs, different colours, but yet there’s that real delight in being us, whether that’s Britain or Scotland or Sheffield or Edinburgh. It’s all ‘us’. It’s being included as part of this place that tells us who we are, never mind how different each of us is.

In another sense, too, place makes us who we are. Where we live affects how we live and how well we live. Some places, we know, are safer than others and some are healthier than others, some even help us to be more active. There are some places where children grow up happily and in contact with a wide range of people and there are some places where fearfulness keeps kids indoors. There are places where enterprise and business flourish and others where work is hard to get and harder still to keep.

The places we live shape the well-being of each one of us. They say who we are. They are where we belong, sports stars and ordinary folk. That’s why they’re important.  Question is – who makes the places?  Who gives them their shape, makes them good places or bad places to be?

Even the very idea of ‘making places’, of places being ‘made’ seems odd. They seem like accidents. And that in a country where belonging to a place is so important.

Of course, places are made, made by human action.  But so often today, unlike when Glasgow’s Merchant City or Edinburgh’s New Town were built, there seems to be little common community intention.  A study by Glasgow University for Architecture+Design Scotland and a report by the Scottish Government’s own Council of Economic Advisers both found the places we build today to be mostly mediocre, certainly less good than European colleagues now build. Few people seem to ask – what do we want our place to be like and how is it going to provide all-round well-being for the people who’ll live and work here?  The new places we build seem to be driven by money and not much else.  ‘Carpet-bombing the countryside’ was how one architect described some housing schemes.

Except when using events to stir up a kind of small-focus patriotism, intended to exclude people who don’t share their position as much as to include those who do, like Cameron with the Olympics and Salmond with almost everything, governments tend not to care about place very much.  They do services, they do law-making, but place-making doesn’t register.  It leads to terrible waste of public money.  The ‘Total Place’ initiative in England (we have no such thing in Scotland) found that just to develop the economy of one place – Leicester and Leicestershire – there were 64 different national-to-local funding streams, each with their own national rules, and at least 44% of funds getting lost in control and administration.

Of course, the private sector can do at least as much for the local place economy as any government spending.  But in the free-market free-for-all that passes as our economy any thought of nurturing the local economy and local attachment to place, despite the efforts of Chambers of Commerce and beacons like Totnes and Neilston, gets overwhelmed by ‘clone town’ chains and the uninterested ownership of hedge funds or foreign investors.

Local government, with its local place focus, ought to have the powers and show the leadership to shape local market forces and manage government funding.  But the powers aren’t there. Government ministers, with no attachment to that local place can, and do, interfere in every local decision from playgrounds to shop signs. And, without powers to act responsibly, much local leadership is withering when it should be growing. It can be reversed and in ‘Places Need Leaders’ Architecture+Design Scotland shows how.

Most important the people who belong to a place don’t get enough say in making their place. Sometimes the loudest voices, often wrong, crowd others out.  We seem to have lost the space and the words for us to debate with each other the question – what do we want our place to be like?  Perhaps it’s time to roar, in Olympic volume, to those who have ears to hear – ‘this place matters!”


First published in The Scotsman 15 August 2012


Are we at one of those moments? One of those moments in history when the world might shift?

It happened in Britain after the 1939-45 war when all the common trials and tribulations of conflict suddenly opened the door for the NHS, state pensions and the welfare state.  It happened in the 1960’s when personal expression and freedom suddenly blossomed.  Could something, we know not what, be about to shift again soon?

We need it.  The scandals of overweening corporate power and incompetence are all around us. It isn’t just that the incompetence of G4S over their Olympic guard duties is followed by their still claiming their full £57m fee. The sense of being ripped off by big over-powerful companies – banks, utilities, airlines – is personal, felt by each one of us. Some we sense, may even be crooks. HSBC, and they are not alone, knowingly laundered the money of big time drug dealers. Other banks fixed interest rates. Rich investors bought the debt of the poorest countries in the world and then went to court to suck from them great multiples of what they first owed.

The richest 100,000 people in the world, no more, have salted away in tax havens well over $20,000,000,000,000 – more than the whole American economy – depriving us all, and especially poor countries, of prosperity. In Britain the richest 1000 have boosted their total wealth in 10 years by an extra £250,000,000,000 – enough to pay off our debts.

That eye-watering transfer of wealth to the rich has happened over the last 30 or so years.  If we’d kept the same income distribution as we had in 1979 then most people in this country (but not the top 1%) would be nearly £2000 a year better off.

How did we get to this dreadful state? That 30 years is interesting. Margaret Thatcher was elected in 1979. Shortly, she and Ronald Reagan decided to stop regulating the banks, the finance houses, the investment funds.  Their “Big Bang” in global financial markets of 26 October 1986 is the reason we have our troubles today.  Their actions were based on the hugely mistaken but hugely powerful economic doctrine of ‘get government off our backs and give markets the freedom to work’ – a doctrine that created vast wealth for the top few, destroyed investment in the real economy and left the rest of us to pick up the pieces.

And we all fell for it.  When decent and good building societies converted to banks most of us rushed to vote yes and pocket the ‘windfall’. Without exception those new ‘banks’ failed or have been swallowed by bigger banking failures.  Most of us, in one way or another, bought into the doctrine that free markets are the best markets.  We’ve let the voices of the rich and the voices of the big company bosses become the dominant voices in our world. We’ve allowed the poor to be blamed for their own poverty, allowed a society to grow where disabled people are called scroungers to their face, allowed trade unions to dwindle and be vilified. And that suits the super-rich no end.  Few challenge the claim of right by the mega-rich to move millions around the world to avoid tax – because we’ve all done it a bit, moved our savings to the Isle of Man or bought ‘VAT-free’ CDs from Jersey.

Like all of us, politicians too have fallen slave to those loud selfish voices and the doctrines they peddle. It would be surprising if they didn’t. But are we at one of those moments when the world might shift?

Perhaps we are. When even the ministerial successors of Thatcher in today’s Conservative-led government can suggest fines for accountants who don’t divulge their fancy schemes to keep rich people from paying tax, then perhaps we are seeing something new.

The public mood – that’s you and me – is certainly changing. Look at the success of protest group 38 Degrees in persuading McDonalds and Coca Cola not to use the tax dodges set up for them to milk their exclusive Olympic franchises.  Look at the successes of UK Uncut and the Occupy movement in shaming corporate bosses about their tax doges and financial excesses.

But more than a few fines and bad publicity are needed if we are to make the most of this moment. Let’s aim to rid ourselves of those pernicious dominant voices and find a way to where every voice of every citizen is equal, where our economy serves all and not just the rich. In other words – re-assert our democracy.

First, let’s make every tax return from every citizen a public document.  That scares us.  Our income is private between us and the taxman, we say.  But it’s not. Paying our taxes, and paying them equitably, is the price we each pay for a fair and civilised society and a sign of our citizenship. If tax returns of the rich are open to scrutiny, alongside all the PAYE workers, then, if they cheat, the consequences of the law are there.  It’s done in Sweden – and their democracy has not exactly collapsed.

Second, let’s try and manufacture a rule whereby we can tax every accountancy firm every time they devise a new tax-dodge scheme and every time they recruit someone to it.  If it’s legal but ‘morally wrong’ then here’s a way to deal with it. It was Jimmy Carr’s scheming accountants who should have been in Cameron’s ‘moral outrage’ dock more than him.

Third, we’ve pretty well nationalised the Royal Bank of Scotland now – we own 82% of it.  So let’s just take that bit and turn it into a genuine public investment bank, where manufacturers and traders around the country can get the long-term investment they need.  Let’s divide it up and make it regional so local managers get to know their local businesses. Something of the same happens in Germany – and they still have an economy to shout about.

Let’s put workers on company boards, like Germany, put proper power into the hands of towns and cities, like Norway, give tax breaks to co-operatives and mutuals as they do in Spain.  There’s a moment to seize and to shape.