SOUNDS ridiculous, doesn’t it? The idea that Holyrood could be “reversed” by discontented Scottish communities who feel devolution has strengthened Edinburgh at the expense of their own democratic clout.

Yet, it’s true. The Scottish Constitutional Convention promised in 1999 that creating the Scottish Parliament would hasten decentralisation across Scotland. It hasn’t happened and it’s not just the SNP but every party at Holyrood that’s welched on the deal.

Some 25 years on, this is the ideal year to fix that democratic deficit, to shift power out of quangos, out of private hands, out of Holyrood, out of the vast regional councils that masquerade as “local” and into something resembling the genuinely local councils that underpin ALL of our successful, wee North European neighbours.

But will it happen? And is the clock really ticking on devolution if it doesn’t?

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Is it possible Scottish communities could turn on the Scottish Parliament over remoteness from power in the same way English communities whacked Westminster (and themselves) o’er the heid using Brexit as a misguided way to protest at being “left behind”?

That scenario was outlined in yesterday’s National by an Edinburgh-based academic who suggests Scottish and Welsh people see devolution as beneficial for their nations, but not nearly so good for their local communities.

Davide Vampa, co-director of Edinburgh University’s Centre on Constitutional Change, says devolution may receive “future challenges to its legitimacy and, possibly, its very existence” – facing the same rejection established institutions suffered during the EU referendum when English communities railed against a feeling of being brushed aside.

In a survey he conducted with Deltapoll, Vampa found 57% of Scottish respondents think devolution has benefitted Scotland, with 65% saying Edinburgh has benefitted significantly. But only 43% thought devolution has benefitted their own communities.

The National: Cities like Inverness could be empowered by decentralisationCities like Inverness could be empowered by decentralisation

Is that enough of a difference to cause constitutional insurrection by grassroots activists?

Actually, I wish it was.

The top-down nature of Scotland is one of our biggest problems – produced by centuries of feudal land ownership and historically the smallest electorate in northern Europe, since the early ability to vote was entirely determined by owning land.

Without the ability to make decisions, take responsibility, feel secure and shape our own lives, Scots have drifted – physically and politically. Now our “local” democracy like our “local” land is not local by world standards.

The prevailing view from politicians north and south of the Border is the same – Scots are saved from ourselves, our apathy and lack of capacity by technocratic over-managers who actually know best. It’s like being cursed with Long Feudalism or the L’Oreal ad in reverse – we aren’t worth it.

This profound doubt about our own capacity to run our own towns, villages and islands is holding Scottish communities back – and acting as a brake on independence.

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If we have no experience of decision-making at local level we cannot model the self-government many would like to see for our nation. Seeing a strong ability to act – is believing. Sadly, the reverse is also true.

But there are other forces that stop despairing locals from lashing out at Holyrood.

Firstly, that feels like going against the political flow for the 50% of Scots (and higher proportion of activists) who support independence and have already assigned the roles of David and Goliath in Britain’s never-ending constitutional tug-of-war. And Holyrood is never viewed as the wrong-doing, power-hogging, top dog, when an over-weaning, undermining, constitutionally sovereign Westminster is strutting about.


For all the fashionable breast-beating amongst Unionists about “superior” local democracy south of the border with elected mayors (who lack the power to reinstate one blessed mile of HS2 and are forced upon a cluster of lower ranking “local councils” with entirely different political allegiances) the British establishment doesn’t do genuine local power in England any more than it does full-blooded devolution in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland.

The National: Holyrood chamber

Indeed, in England they still use archaic first past the post voting for local elections – alone in Europe.

Britain is centralised power personified. But that doesn’t make the Scottish Parliament automatically OK.

Holyrood may be the plucky challenger to Westminster in the constitutional Premier League. But in the First Division, within Scotland, it operates like a powerful Old Firm.

Always on top. Always in the headlines. Always calling the shots. Always in charge of the cash. Steadily sooking power from the minnows as befits any good British institution.

And as a final complication, our current councils could hardly be described as minnows. They are pipped only by South Korea as the largest “local” authorities in the developed world.

Thanks to two Tory prime ministers we didn’t elect and a lot of looking the other way ever since.

In 1973 Ted Heath reduced 400 Scottish councils to 53 districts and nine regions. In 1996 John Major reduced these to just 32 single-tier authorities – a level of centralisation he dared not impose on England where 10,480 parish and burgh councils survived with an average annual budget of £1 million, dwarfing Scotland’s 1200 community councils with a miserable £400 per annum.

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As a result, Scotland’s 32 whopping great “local” councils (average population of 170,000 compared to the EU average of just 10,000) are distant, micro-managing, unloved bureaucratic leviathans not gallus, lithe wee representatives of the people.

Nevertheless, they are also victims of Holyrood diktat, as evidenced by the current row over a council tax freeze that other European governments would be unable to enforce upon separate, self-governing tiers of democracy. It’s a mess.

And right at the bottom of the democratic food chain sit actual, organic communities. Occasionally they are powerful buyout communities like Assynt, Eigg and West Whitlawburn. But more usually they are giant dormitories with great folk, huge potential, big problems but no civic heart and no say.

This stealthy centralisation of power has got to stop. But actually, it’s getting worse.

The National: In Norway, 1 out of every 88 people stand for electionIn Norway, 1 out of every 88 people stand for election

Touring the country for almost a year with Thrive and now the Denmark film, it’s clear that local atrophy is not confined to town councils. SNP branches have been micro-managed by party HQ for so long, that many have forgotten how to act autonomously.

And the latest proposal by Professor Jim Gallagher of the pro-Union think tank Our Scottish Future suggests that the answer to centralisation by Holyrood is devolving powers to towns and cities (not communities) which could clump together to become even larger combined authorities.

Yip, Prof Jim thinks too many Scottish councils were allowed to remain after John Major’s 1991 cull. Yet this is daft. Most other countries have regional councils (Jim’s city-regions) PLUS properly local councils of 10,000 people. Why are the Scots, uniquely unable to contemplate both – too expensive?

It's worth knowing Norwegian directors of education are often part-time teachers too.

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Other posts are combined to save money, so one person is Director of Housing, Planning and Roads and gets a normal salary.

Council meetings are held in the evening because everyone can get home afterwards. So, councillors can hold down day jobs and none is actually paid.

For larger projects, Norway’s 400-odd municipalities work together and these joint projects work better because they avoid dangerous “monopoly thinking” (looking at you Post Office) and ideas get early, vigorous challenge from many perspectives.

One in 88 Norwegians stands for election compared to one in 2071 Scots. How to change? Well, it’s clear politicians are feart.

That’s why a small steering group’s been formed to create a citizens’ panel that will hopefully convene in a symbolic venue on St Andrew’s Day 2024 – to hear evidence from around Europe and devise a way to restore local democracy to Scotland, in time for the Scottish Parliament elections of 2026.

For locals scunnered with an o’er centralised Holyrood, don’t get angry, or “even” – get active. This situation can change.