The Power of the People
Politics matter, It is the way in which we organise our society says Tim Bell…
These days we do it by representative democracy. Referendums have no constitutional standing.
From the Union in 1707, Scotland had 14 Members of Parliament - representation was pretty remote. From the Reform Act of 1832 Leith, Portobello and Musselburgh was one constituency, represented by Whig (Liberal) MPs, predominantly from merchant, legal, and aristocratic backgrounds.
In 1920 Leith became a parliamentary constituency. For the first few years the Whig tradition continued, but with its dominant working classes, it became a Labour stronghold for the rest of last century.
With the arrival of devolution in 1999, everything changed. Having delivered “the settled will of the Scottish people”, Labour set about trying to make Holyrood work well within the Union. But then Labour seemed to be no longer distinctively Scottish – an open door for separatists.
Leith did not buck the national trends: up to 2015 Leith returned Labour MPs, and since then an SNP MP. At Holyrood Leith returned Labour MSPs to 2016, and SNP since then. (The constituencies have slightly different boundaries, both going well outside the core of Leith.)
The bedrock of the traditional British political parties is Judaeo-Christianity.
Christian Socialism was formed as a movement in the 19th century to protect individuals and communities from the worst effects of exploitative capitalism. Trade unions were the first manifestations, followed by the political wing, the Labour Party, and the intellectual Fabian Society.
The working principles are collective action and solidarity. Equality of everything is not an aim of socialism, but the motto: “Enough for everyone and nobody with too much” has deep roots in Jewish and Christian teaching.
But belonging in a union – whether it’s an international treaty, a trade union or a marriage – involves compromise, suppressing autonomy.
Jesus valued diversity and upheld human rights many times: we don’t all conform to a consensus, but we don’t lose any rights or dignity because of that. This is home territory for the Liberal Democrats.
In healthy unions, diversity generates creative energy.
But the Bible recognises that economic realities and market-place forces cannot be ignored. We have to earn a living and generate wealth. The parable of the talents teaches that we must creatively invest what is given to us.
We need creative people who take risks and responsibility. To do well for oneself and one’s own is an honourable ambition. And we can’t all be employees! Business interests are the core pitch for the Conservative party.
Responsible entrepreneurs willingly pay taxes. It is in their interests to have a healthy, well-educated workforce and a wider population wealthy enough to buy their products. Throughout the Bible there is a bias in support of the poor and oppressed.
The newcomer to this traditional party line-up is the Green Party. You don’t have to be Christian to know that we are creatures of nature and that we have to live within the natural environment. There should be no need for a Green party: socialists, liberals, and generators of wealth can and should all be green, as a priority.
Each of these positions need to be fairly represented in our councils and parliaments. No one position has all the wisdom needed for good government. Democracy requires an interplay between them all.
Nationalism is ever-present in political life. But it doesn’t do well in the Bible. In the Old Testament it is a vengeful God who supports the Israelites as they smite the Hittites and the Philistines, anyone who is not “one of us”. It all disappears in the New Testament, where there is neither Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, male nor female; all are one.
“Independence” exists as a political slogan; elsewhere it is Scotch mist. Ethnic and cultural groups, economic systems, and stretches of territory, are all very porous and interdependent. Identity politics is dangerous.
The governing principle of nationalists is the pursuit of whatever they say is best for their group.
There is always the question of devolution. From whom should the armed forces take orders? Who should run the macro-economy? Who administers the schools and organises bin collections? The general principle is that decision-making is best devolved to the most local competent level.
As the most centralised country in Europe, the UK certainly needs to change its devolutionary arrangements.
There’s no perfect voting system. The single transferable vote system, used in council elections throughout Scotland, is better than most. All Edinburgh wards are represented in the council chamber by more than one party, some by four different parties. No grouping has an overall majority.
The “first-past-the-post” electoral system, used for Westminster elections, must be abolished. It encourages confrontational politics. We are far more diverse than the distorted representations it produces.
All this is the legitimate stuff of everyday conversations. Democracy requires engagement.
Leith has traditionally had robust debate, at the Foot of the Walk, in the pubs, at the school gates, in the newspaper columns, online.
Don’t let it die. ■
Sir A. Murray at open air meeting Leith. General Election campaign 1955. Image: www.scran.ac.uk