Building local democracy in tune with human nature
Human beings are social creatures who constantly form into groups. While each type of group may be very different in character and purpose, to function optimally each must meet two basic human needs.
First, it must allow us the freedom to express ourselves joyfully, lovingly, creatively, articulately and effectively. The last of these qualities is about the 'locus of control' in our lives. Lacking control over our lives leads to depression.
Secondly, it must give us an equitable share of responsibility for the well-being of others, as this generates a sense of connection, human warmth and self worth. One of the most important groups in this respect is the local neighbourhood community, because it is vital to feel that we are living among friends who care for us, rather than strangers who couldn't care less whether we live or die.
Combining freedom with responsibility is inherently problematic in any type of group, for if responsibilities are simply imposed on us, they automatically undermine our freedom. To overcome this difficulty, wherever possible we must find ways of reaching a consensus with other group members regarding our mutual responsibilities. If we can achieve this, even the fulfilment of our responsibilities becomes part of our freedom of expression, forming a fusion of the two elements. It is in this fusion that we find our place in the World.
In the context of a neighbourhood community, the fusion of freedom and responsibility requires the creation of democratic forums that bring people together to plan their shared social, economic and environmental future. Such planning must include the negotiation of mutual responsibilities. By working together like this, we can foster mutual understanding, empathy, trust and friendship.
The dangers of groupness, and using local democracy to overcome them
Henri Tajfel identified a problem with what he called groupness; the human tendency to prefer people we regard as part of the same group as us, and to dislike those we identify as outside of that group. Obviously such dislike can build into mistrust and hostility. The Robbers' Cave Experiment of 1954 showed that building trust between groups requires them to cooperate to achieve mutual goals. Therefore any system of local democracy should incorporate mechanisms that promote cooperation between neighbourhoods. This is especially important in today’s multi-cultural society in which adjacent communities may have strikingly different ethnic or religious profiles.
The upward transmission of power
Genuine local democracy must also provide pathways for the transmission of power upwards through higher levels of governance, enabling neighbourhood communities to influence all decisions affecting them. At the same time it must incorporate democratic safeguards to ensure those same pathways are not used to impose authority from above in a dictatorial manner.
The question is: does modern-day Scotland provide the sort of local democracy described above? The answer must be a resounding “no”.
Over the past century Scotland’s neighbourhood communities have been stripped of all control over, and responsibility for, their own governance and well-being, starting with the abolition of parish councils in 1930. By contrast, parish councils in England have considerable powers and budgets. The process of centralisation continued with the abolition of Scotland's town councils in 1975 and the transfer of their powers to district councils.
As a result, Scotland’s neighbourhood communities have neither freedom to harness their creative energies nor responsibility for their well-being beyond litter picks and flower basket planting. Neighbours no longer have any need to know each other. Similarly, different ethnic and religious communities have no need to mix.
The toxic effects of this centralisation include isolation, lack of trust, interracial tension, mental illness, drug and alcohol misuse, violence, suicide and of course the boredom and frustration that are caused by the stifling of collective creativity.
However, the most insidious effect of over-centralised governance is that it turns the focus of our lives inwards so that we lose the ability and the instinct to act co-operatively. This has grave implications for the future of our planet, which will depend on co-operative action to avert the most serious consequences of global warming.
Our goal must be to create a society in which people work together and help each other constructively and compassionately. This must begin with the creation of a system of participative democracy with roots that run deep in our neighbourhood communities, enabling collective decision-making and the exercise of negotiated responsibilities. The alternative is an increasingly fractured society that ultimately will require the strictures of a police state to survive.
Coupar Angus Social Capital Audit + Democracy Experiment (CASCADE), Scottish Charity number SC047065. 2022