‘We have to be optimists’: how can Scotland rebuild trust?

Scotland needs a radical shift in the way that power and influence are distributed to help address democratic deficits and rebuild trust in the political process, The Ferret has heard.

Politicians and campaigners reacting to our week-long investigation – Who Runs Scotland – claimed it has revealed deep flaws in our transparency legislation and a heavy reliance on big businesses based outwith Scotland, including those with links to tax havens. 

Our series of reports also suggested a “closed shop” of connections in both public and private decision-making and an imbalance of power tipped in favour of those with money, land, connections and high professional status.

Businesses said they were investing in communities and creating jobs while the Scottish Government insisted it was already committed to transparency and closing the inequality gap. 

It said it was committed to concluding a review of local government “within this parliament”, and was looking to “combine an empowered local government with a transformation in community-led decision-making”. “There is a clear appetite for changing how power and resources are shared,” said a spokesperson.

But responding to our findings, commentators suggested solutions to what they view as a democratic deficit, including increased transparency initiatives, wider use of citizens assemblies, more diverse voices in positions of power and creative input that challenges the status quo. 

Power is “concentrated in the hands of too few people”, said Willie Sullivan, director of the Electoral Reform Society Scotland. “The question is really whether Scottish society is democratic enough.”

At the very least, I think every senior appointment to a significant public body in Scotland should be subjected to parliamentary scrutiny before the person takes their post, as is already the case in Westminster.

Ian Fraser, author and journalist

As part of the investigation we looked at the power of the energy lobby and its access to Scottish Government ministers, and we also found that 90 per cent of Scotland Office meetings were with industry or business. Other revelations included the special access that multinational arms dealers with operations in Scotland had to Westminster’s corridors of power. 

Sullivan said: “It’s ok to talk to big business of course. But most people aren’t in big business and yet they rely on the economy for their livelihoods. So we need to make sure that a bigger range of voices are being heard.” 

He applauded the use of citizens assemblies by the Scottish Government and said more were needed. ​

In January Scotland’s first Citizens Assembly – group of people selected at random to learn about and deliberate on issues – published 60 recommendations. The assembly was made up of 100 members of the public.​ The recommendations include pushing for the abolition of zero hours contracts, exploring whether a standard four-day working week should be introduced and establishing an anti-poverty task force in every council area.

“The development of things like citizens assemblies not only allows government to hear those experiences but it also helps to build trust,” Sullian said. “And really the biggest challenge to our democracy at the moment is the lack of trust.”

According to the Ipsos MORI Veracity Index 2020, only 15 per cent of the public trust politicians to tell the truth, while the figure for government ministers was just 16 per cent.

Sullivan called for the transparency loopholes in the lobbying register – which mean only face-to-face lobbying has to be registered – to be closed, echoing criticism this week by both Scottish Labour and the Scottish Conservatives in the wake of our report.

We all have the democratic right to lobby. That’s important. But the fact that we hear more from those with resources to pay people to do it for them raises some serious issues. It’s about equality of access and transparency helps us gauge that.

Moi Ali

He said: “Politicians tell us that the systems are already in place for scrutiny and they tell us to trust them. But there have been worrying instances where that trust has not been honoured. So we need to find mechanisms of rebuilding it. 

“The old system of electing people and just leaving them [the politicians] to get on with it is breaking down. One response is a concentration of authoritarianism. The other is to be much more democratic and transparent.” 

A more central question, he continued, was how power could be better shared. 

“There’s been huge opposition to the house of Lords and the SNP is to be commended that it won’t send anyone. But arguably we have a hidden house of lords here – it’s those who run our boards, and inherit huge amounts of land. 

“What’s needed is to acknowledge it and ask how we check it. I think increasingly people are aware that we can’t keep going in the face of these huge inequalities – even those who benefit recognise that we can’t sustain it. And for me, this is a point of optimism.”

According to author and journalist Ian Fraser, who wrote Shredded: Inside RBS, the bank that broke Britain, lessons must be learned about the past over-reliance on big business and the finance sector figures, who often held the key jobs in public bodies. 

Fraser claimed too many senior bankers had joined government agencies. “From the moment Alex Salmond left RBS in order to enter full-time politics as an SNP MP in 1987 until the bank’s 2008 collapse, there was also a ‘revolving’ door between bank and party,” Fraser argued.

Former RBS figures highlighted in our power list include Angus Grossart, Benny Higgins and Andrew Wilson.  

“Complacency is one of the biggest things standing in the way,” she added. “But we know that there is huge appetite for doing things differently.

Emma Ritch, director of Engender

“At the very least, I think every senior appointment to a significant public body in Scotland should be subjected to parliamentary scrutiny before the person takes their post, as is already the case in Westminster,” added Fraser. 

Moi Ali also spoke to The Ferret. She has held a range of public sector positions since moving to Scotland from Manchester 30 years ago. She quit the board of the Scottish Police Authority in 2017, claiming she was punished for raising concerns about its transparency. Ali said The Herald and The Ferret’s investigation highlighted that need for transparency more than ever.

“That’s true of everything from lobbying to who sits on public boards,” she added. “A small group of people should not be making decisions behind closed doors.

“We all have the democratic right to lobby. That’s important. But the fact that we hear more from those with resources to pay people to do it for them raises some serious issues. It’s about equality of access and transparency helps us gauge that.”

The Ferret found that chief executives and board members of public bodies –especially the highest-paid – were disproportionately white. Ali claimed that positive discrimination schemes for people with relevant life experience and demonstratable capability were needed, providing targeted training for those who didn’t have the “formal” experience of managing large teams and budgets that board jobs often required.

“It means you can get diversity of opinion and experience as well as diversity in terms of protected characteristics,” she added. “My experience of the Scottish Police Authority was that there was groupthink and ultimately that is not good for communities.” 

Mike Small, editor of Bella Caledonia, said the Who Runs Scotland investigations had “shone a light on the influence of lobbyists and networks of power”. The Ferret found 10 of Scotland’s newspapers were owned by three billionaires.

Small said: “The Ferret’s top ten is a good start at mapping the clandestine networks that hold onto power in Scotland. Not all are malign, and some wield influence for progressive causes, charities and philanthropy. It would be simplistic to put these characters and institutions into Goodies and Baddies.

“But many have unimaginable wealth, reside in a corporate world with wildly inappropriate reach and power into government and media. The problem for creating a Scottish democracy is that much of our public life is controlled by unseen influence, with openness and transparency and systems of accountability often marked absent from our institutions and forums.”

Rhiannon Davies, editor of Glasgow’s Greater Govanhill community magazine, agreed that democracy was weakened by “media conglomerates who are more concerned with lining the pockets of their shareholders than serving the communities they cover”.

She launched the local current affairs magazine earlier this year to better serve one of Scotland’s most multicultural neighbourhoods, which sits in First Minister Nicola Sturgeon’s constituency.

The media are more trusted than our politicians – although according to the Ipsos MORI Veracity Index 2020 but not by much with only 23 per cent of the public trusting journalists to tell the truth.

Davies said: “So many people we spoke to in the local community had stopped reading the news, because they didn’t feel it represented them. Communities such as the Roma can be wrongly scapegoated and vilified by certain aspects of media, in a way that drives division. 

“Greater Govanhill aims to break down cultural barriers and bring people together in a publication that celebrates diversity. But it also provides opportunities and journalism skills training to people who are under-represented in our media. We need a media that is more representative of Scotland today in order to challenge dominant structures and redistribute the power they share.”

Others told us new and creative thinking was needed to help as many people as possible engage with Scotland’s power structures.

Jan Nimmo, a political artist and filmmaker based in Glasgow, said that teaching people to think creatively through making art could be a way to help people better define their understanding of the world, as well as giving them the confidence to express their ideas about society. 

“People who are taught to be visually literate are better able to express themselves,” she said. “And that means they are better able to speak up for themselves. and make them feel more able to contact local politicians or write to MSPs. But crucially it allows people the space to question the status quo.”

Emma Ritch, the director of Engender, was interviewed for this piece before her tragic death last week. She said advocates for women’s equality “had to be optimists”.

“Complacency is one of the biggest things standing in the way,” she added. “But we know that there is huge appetite for doing things differently.

“Change takes time, but movements like Me Too, Black Lives Matter, and Say her Name, are chipping away at the pillars propping up our unequal society.”

‘We have to be optimists’

For this piece we spoke to Emma Ritch, director of Engender – who tragically passed away last week. Her words, expressing hope for change, are published here in full in her memory.

There is a perception that everyone in Scotland knows each other. And while it’s true that it is possible (or certainly was before Covid) to bump into Government Ministers on a Scotrail train, or wander into the Scottish Parliament on your lunch break, this perception can lead to further alienation of marginalised communities. 

An ‘old boys club’ scaled up can happen where people who speak different languages, who live outwith the central belt, or who may be, justifiably, suspicious of the state, are excluded from vital conversations. So although it’s undoubtedly more straightforward for women’s rights advocates to speak to key decision-makers in Scotland compared with some other nations, we do need to see fundamental change in the way that power is wielded and decisions made.

The sense that we have already won the argument is one of the greatest challenges faced by advocates for women’s equality. From maternity legislation to women’s equal representation in politics, people think that the job is done. 

This is exemplified in this year’s Holyrood election results being hailed as a ‘diversity parliament’ despite having only two women of colour. It does make a difference to have feminist women in positions of power, but scratching the surface of Scotland reveals male over-representation in our chambers of power, with entrenched influence over the policy and legislation which shapes our lives.

Power relations colour all of our interactions. From ‘special relationships’ between nations, to ‘positive partnerships’ between government and local authorities in Scotland, to a grassroots organisation working with a national institution, we know that these are not equal collaborations. Scotland, along with the rest of the UK, has a history of sexism, white supremacy, and other forms of inequality, which are still present in our structures and culture today, and must be challenged. 

Moves to greater localised democracy, like citizens’ assemblies and participatory budgeting could hold huge potential for challenging these structures, but they must be done with equality in mind or risk simply advancing the interests of those who already hold the most power in society.

We still have a way to go before companies, political parties and other  institutions recognise that diversity is important not just for its own sake, but because it leads to better practices. Even with legislation in place, we can see a tendency for diversity on boards to be undermined by gender segregation in the types of tasks undertaken, or for women to be shut out of key decision-making sub-groups and committees.  

That said advocates for women’s equality have to be optimists. Complacency is one of the biggest things standing in the way, but we know that there is huge appetite for doing things differently among the women of Scotland. Change takes time, but movements like Me Too, Black Lives Matter, and Say her Name, are chipping away at the pillars propping up our unequal society.

This investigation is part of our wider series Who Runs Scotland. We have been shedding a light on ownership and power in Scotland’s economy, environment and politics.

Illustration by David Peter Kerr.

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