Democracy Matters – but does it work?


This week, I had the chance to host two workshops as part of a Scottish Government consultation on local decision making. The project is called “Democracy Matters” and partially facilitated with help of the Scottish Churches Parliamentary office which seems sensible considering that the church has a presence even in the farthest corners of the country. I got involved as I am a member of the Church and Society Council of the Church of Scotland and got asked to be a facilitator.

At times of Brexit, one would think that a democracy event would gain a certain level of attention easily, however, both workshops that I led had low turn outs even though invites had been circulated to local organisations including community councils. One event was held in the small town of Balloch near Loch Lomond and the other in the heart of Glasgow, but this did not make much of a difference to attendance either. The point where the two events differed was the passion with which (the failure of) local democracy was discussed.

In Balloch, residents are up in arms to challenge plans to develop local green belt land into a tourist resort. The workshop participants were very resentful about how this development was managed and how their voices against it were systematically ignored. Starting from their location in a National Park which on the one hand removes certain responsibilities from the elected local council to the appointed board of a National Trust and which on the other hand seems to become meaningless as soon as the prospect of economic gain emerges. The participants further viewed the community councils as a conduit for the local council rather than a body of representatives of their neighbours. They gave the example of a public meeting with the community council where the majority of 200 attendees expressed objections to the development, but the council opted to support it nevertheless. On top, they felt uninformed or even wilfully misled. To them, local democracy was nothing but a sham.

In Glasgow, I faced a group I was familiar with and who I knew as quite engaged people. To my surprise, they felt so distant from the local decision-making processes that they had a hard time to identify times when they had been involved in local decision making and how their engagement could be improved. The few experiences they had, mostly public consultations concerning city planning and developments, were negative. Just like the people of Balloch the Glaswegian group felt that these exercises never actually led to their voices being heard and taken seriously.

For someone like me, who is planning to make the study of the democracy her long-term career, this is quite concerning. Literature often blames apathy and fatigue for low participation in democracy, but these people I met did not fit this description. On the contrary, most of them were quite passionate about what was going on around them and in the world. Yet, they did not feel engaged. I find this to be a quite mind-boggling paradox. The crisis of democracy seems to be even more severe than I thought.

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