Robin McAlpine: Progress needs the state, but the state must progress

“I didn’t get into politics to make bureaucrats more powerful or hand more control to politicians. I’m here to get power back to people, to communities, to tenants and passengers and patients and students and frontline staff. We need the state to make it happen, but then we need them to take their hands off.”

Common Weal Versus the Virus: The virus is exposing the reality of the weaknesses in our economy, society and democracy. Over the last six years Common Weal has been showing that the weaknesses can all be fixed. Over the next few weeks Common Weal Director Robin McAlpine will write a series of columns showing how Common Weal policy is the best way to survive this virus and then rebuild when its over. Today – the future of the state

THOSE OF US on the Left are endlessly attacked for our supposed desire for ‘big government’. It is strange that this is seen as a terrible thing since the alternative is, quite clearly, rule by money. The state is our collective voice; of course someone who believes in society believes in government.

But that does not mean the state does not need serious reform to deal with what is ahead.

First, let’s here it for democracy

In places like Eastern Europe or Latin America it is generally the political right which is the biggest threat to democracy, but in the US and Western Europe it is the liberals who are most inclined to talk anti-democratically.

When they talk about ‘populism’ they don’t use an accurate definition, but instead use it to mean ‘the public wants something and they’re clearly wrong so listening to them would be terrible’.

They believe in a technocracy, a system of government where rules (created by them, their friends and the lobbyists) must always supersede the public will. They are so distrustful of collective public action driven by the people’s will that they side with right-wing rhetoric on the state.

In London, they hated Corbyn so much that even those who call themselves ‘the Left’ keep saying that government can’t solve all our problems and we need self-started action in communities to do it instead… Then they say they’re concerned about low pay.

It’s the collision of Norman Tebbit, Milton Friedman and Greta Thunberg – ‘get on your bike and fix climate change but not using the state because that’s what the Left wants’. I have friends in London who hold to this view. I do quiz them on it sometimes, asking for some details on how that is even possible. I don’t yet have answers.

So, unfashionable as it is, let me say this – three cheers for democracy. And since it’s wholly apparent that the technocrats have failed disastrously, here’s to the citizens getting a shot at being wrong for a change. Or, you know, right even.

Remember this – you own the state and it works for you. It is not an independent entity. If you’re not happy, take it back. The second you find yourself saying things like, ‘Oh, but I don’t want the state to…’, first, why not? What needs fixed? Fix it. Second, think about who will do it otherwise and let’s talk about that first. Outsourcing is not better than the state.

The state is an easy target – I rage daily at the state of the state. I’ve given up on Westminster completely. Government in Scotland is the most awful mess and desperately needs political and structural reform. But not only is it possible to save it – it’s utterly essential.

The future of the state is to be our collective voice again, our collective tool, our only means of shaping the big and powerful forces which impact on our lives. We need a powerful, entrepreneurial state. Those who tell you to walk away and pretend that some privatised realm of ‘self action’ is a viable replacement should be ignored with extreme prejudice.

Our state is rotting from the top – the cure is participation, transparency and better governance

I feel that we’re going to have to dedicate some Common Weal time just to mapping and cataloguing the sheer volume of infiltration of government in Scotland by big money and vested interests. It is such a distorted, cynical mess that major surgery is needed. But few with power or a voice seem to care much. So we’ll try and use what voice we have.

But you can either get to grips with the size and shape of the problem by looking more closely at the reality or you can get a pen portrait of the problem in this entertaining piece.

We have a monied clique at the top of Scotland and everyone from the media to the politicians to the public officials treat them like minor deities. Their lobbyists almost never don’t get what they want. What is left behind is frankly a betrayal of the public interest.

If the media, think tanks, universities, politicians and civil servants were not so complicit and the public actually knew, there would be outrage.

(There has been hardly any media reporting of the Scottish Government’s ongoing fight to subjugate tenants on behalf of landlords so how do you explain the cause of the problem if they don’t know there’s a problem? I just spoke to someone who was convinced Scotland is doing ten times the Covid tests of England – we’re doing quite a lot fewer.)

But let us now take this head-on. Most of what needs to be done I’ve covered across these virus columns. They illustrate a reform programme.

First, reform governance. Clique-ocracy means everything in Scotland is run on an appointee basis and there is no pretence that the appointees are there to act in the public interest. This is just the allocation of power by power.

Don’t ever underestimate the importance of this. Democracy is steered every four years by elections, but every day of the week by institutional governance. Democratise that and we are no longer in Kansas Dorothy.

Then, decentralise. Political capture is easier when decisions are centralised and distant and local democracy is crucial to a balanced system which gives citizen’s power. I’m tired of saying that Scotland is least democratic nation in Europe – and the cliques and technocrats love it that way.

After that, boost transparency – because rot loves the dark and light is the cure. Again, Common Weal has been campaigning (largely in the face of the unified power of the nation’s lobbyists in combination with self-satisfied politicians) to get a desperately-needed upgrade of the lobbying register and substantial extension of the Freedom of Information Act.

The most important thing here is that lobbyists must register contact with civil servants and not just politicians. As a formed lobbyist I can promise that if we can rig the outcome with a civil servant and not bother too much with the politician, we’ll do that every time.

Right now the Chief Exec of Serco could invite every senior civil servant in Scotland to their house for ten hours of expensive food and wine and intensive lobbying – and you would have no right to know.

Freedom of Information should cover all outsourcing and commercial confidentiality should end when tenders are awarded. I think there should be sanctions for trying to delay resposes. Open up policy development and let people see not just the outcome but the process. It would let you understand not just what but why. This too would make you angry (if you knew).

And I’d like to chuck in one final proposal. When legislation in Scotland is published there has to be an environmental audit statement, outlining the impact on the environment. Let’s add a beneficiary audit – in whose pocket does the money end up? It would be extremely enlightening.

Participatory democracy: make the state serve

If you don’t spend a lot of time inside or close to the Scottish state apparatus (I’ve spent a lifetime there…) then you’d probably be surprised at how little an ethos of service there is the higher you go. The officials see themselves as governors, not public servants. It must be all that time they’re spending at the Serco gaffer’s house…

Here’s a little anecdote: I was in a meeting with the man who was writing the proposal for setting up Creative Scotland (he was a senior financier). He mostly complained that it would be so much easier if it wasn’t for the artists. They’re just a pain in the arse and need to be told that no, they can’t have the agency they want. That’s the burden that lies on important people like him.

Far from serving, he thought he was there to impose discipline and knock others ‘into shape’. Some bureaucrats are convinced they are there to save Scotland from its citizens. Others just don’t care so long as their ‘stakeholders’ are content.

Of course bureaucracies are also rich with brilliant people who want to make a difference. But frankly they tend not to rise as fast or as far.

This is a patronising, paternal view of the purpose of the state. It needs ripped up. The fastest way to do that is participatory democracy (which you can read loads about here here). This really would be a revolution, replacing the clique-based advice system in government (if you knew how much policy is outsourced to KPMG and EY you’d cry) with the voice of citizens.

There isn’t space here to outline what a full system of participatory democracy looks like (you can get a good idea here) but you will be familiar with its component parts (citizens’ juries, citizens’ assemblies, participatory budgeting processes, open consultations and so on).

Implementing these in Scotland would be utterly transformative. It would mean that the state would have to respond not just to money but to (deep breath) people.

I’d go further. I want a second chamber of the Scottish Parliament made up of members of the public chosen at random and given total power to monitor, scrutinise and investigate anything the politicians do. No more hiding in the shadow – if you bung ludicrous amounts of money to one of the richest businesses in the world for no reason, you’re decision-making would be dragged into public.

Imagine that – consequences for corruption and bad decision-making? In Scotland? Would you ever.

But this shouldn’t mean ‘government sprawl’ – let’s innovate

The state is our collective voice and I want much more collective control over the foundational economy. I make no apology for wanting major state intervention in reversing the awful outsourced, privatised cartels we have. I mean, is anyone seriously still arguing that there is any other way?

But does that mean I want state control of everything? No, I don’t. The track record of this is not always good and it is 40 years of government which has made the mess I’m asking to be fixed. State action is our only option, but not the end of the solution.

Let me give you an example. Land reform is presented as either ‘the market’ (i.e. no land reform at all) or ‘Mugabe-style state control’. I don’t particularly want one giant state landowner replacing a few giant private landowners. But no-one apart from the state can do anything.

So I want the state to force the sale of land broken up into small units and to compulsorily purchase land which is develops, breaks up and sells on in small units. My hope is that ordinary Scots can own timber-planted land as an investment; a million landowners is what I want. For this the state has to act first, but it can easily let go again.

State action is not the same as state control. And nationalisation doesn’t have to mean state industry.

Another example: I’ve long proposed ‘National Mutual Companies’, a new form of company structure designed for effective collective ownership. All citizens (or users or tenants or whomever is the collective owner) would get one non-tradeable share. They would own the company, not the state on their behalf.

And they can then actively govern the company. Imagine a National Transport Company created by the Scottish Government nationalising buses, trains and ferries. Spun out as a National Mutual, registered travellers would then own this company (but not be able to benefit financially).

They could then participate in a Digital AGM. Once a year (more often if they want) they could be presented with the key ‘management metrics’ on which company strategy is based. Log in and you get a set of ‘sliders’. Want cheaper fares? Fine – but the sliders for punctuality will drop. Want to invest in more modern and comfortable vehicles? No bother, but your fares will rise… And so on.

Once you’ve adjusted the metrics to reflect what you want from your company, submit. Once everyone has, it will present management with their strategic instructions for the coming year.

This is publicly-owned but not state-controlled. You won’t discover that ‘your’ public company is actually being governed by the big money interests which steer the public companies we have. It is responsive and accountable.

It doesn’t work for everything – in areas like education or health the decisions are too complicated. But in areas like energy, transport, housing or leisure services it would simply make managers work for you again.

These are only two examples of how innovative approaches can enable powerful public action but which doesn’t mean an over-powerful state. The state might actually shrink as collective ownership increases.

I didn’t get into politics to make bureaucrats more powerful or hand more control to politicians. I’m here to get power back to people, to communities, to tenants and passengers and patients and students and frontline staff. We need the state to make it happen, but then we need them to take their hands off.

The future of the state

I’m weary of juvenile caricaturing of those of us who want to see social progress (often by people who claim to want social progress – barring the possible kinds). It’s childish garbage to say that land reform makes you Mugabe or a National Energy Company makes you Stalin.

But the forces of progress have not been good at innovating the state, and where they did they got sucked into the false avenue of ‘public sector reform’ (which strangely always led to outsourcing and marketisation). In some ways we deserve our caricature.

So let’s throw that off now. Government with a purpose and a state that doesn’t have to control – clean, transparent, decentralised and participatory. If we can reform the state as we reform the economy and society, we can set off into a new future and leave the droning voices of ‘small government’ well behind us.

Next up: I’m a socialist – and I’m here to save capitalism