Scotland’s Democratic Deficit
Unionists and Nationalists are in deficit denial – but about different Scottish deficits. Unionists, quite correctly, highlight the challenges of Scotland’s nominal deficit – which would become structural, and therefore problematic, upon independence. Many nationalists downplay it or even deny it exists at all. In contrast, Nationalists highlight what they see as Scotland’s democratic deficit, sometimes with a great deal of hyperbole which can lead to unionists downplaying it or even denying it exists at all. Both deficits exist. Both are problematic. Only by accepting that and building consensus can our politicians act in our interests and start addressing the real problem rather than imagined ones.
Proof of Democratic Deficits in Scotland
“Scotland doesn’t get the governments we vote for.”
This statement is perhaps the phrase that first comes to mind when you hear ‘democratic deficit’. It’s a refrain most often used by Nationalists talking about the conservative Government currently in Westminster, sometimes followed by “Scotland has not voted conservative since 1955.” However: it can just as clearly be applied to the SNP-Green Government in Holyrood. The Greens dare to be in the Scottish Government while saying the conservatives have no democratic legitimacy in Scotland – yet, as can be seen in this diagram, far more Scots vote conservative than Green.
In fact, by their rationale, as Scotland has NEVER voted for a Green government, these are at least equally legitimate deficits. The framing is subjective and hypocritical – the greens are not complaining about their own access to power, pounds and pensions that have come from Nicola Sturgeon’s political convenience. Scots don’t always get the UK government ‘most’ scots vote for – but then we’ve never had a general election where most Scots have voted for a government. The SNP came close with just under 50% of Scottish votes in 2015. Independence would not eradicate democratic deficits in Scotland. Dumfries Clydesdale and Tweeddale always get outvoted by the rest of Scotland in Holyrood elections. Suppose Westminster is illegitimate because Scottish voters are in a democratic deficit; then, in political science terms, Holyrood is equally illegitimate because some of the same voters will be in the same situation.
“Scotland doesn’t get the MPs we vote for.”
A particularly egregious example is Scotland’s 2015 General election results. The SNP got 49.5% of the vote – short of a majority, but still a considerable achievement, but they got 95% of the Scottish MPs.That effectively disenfranchised half of the Scottish Voters.
Each SNP MP only represented under 26,000 Scots. To put that into perspective, each SNP MP only represented 0.6% of the Scottish electorate. The single Labour MP represented 17.8% of the electorate and 24% of the vote. Regarding parliamentary time, votes and influence, unionist Scots have little influence. That is then spun into a narrative to give the impression that Scotland is more nationalist than it is.
Recent polling suggesting Labour could make a comeback in Glasgow saw some nationalists mocking in disbelief – how could that be, Glasgow is solid yellow and almost fully nationalist – yet look at the 2017 results for Glasgow.
Neither had a majority; Labour was close behind yet got zero democratic representation for the next four years.
“Scotland doesn’t get the constitutional arrangements we vote for.”
Not only does Scotland not get the constitutional arrangements most Scots vote for, but it would be IMPOSSIBLE to deliver the constitutional settlement’ most Scots’ voted for. This Graph shows how Scots voted in our two recent constitutional referendums – Independence in 2014 and on the EU in 2016.
What should become immediately clear is framed like this: a democratic deficit is inevitable. There isn’t a possible combination of in/out of the UK and EU that would give most Scots what they voted for. This is because Scotland hasn’t been divided – we have been quartered. This especially highlights one of the weaknesses of using such a blunt tool as a referendum. Referendums create dichotomies. These are false dichotomies because yes or no, leave or remain, force people into seemingly homogenous camps. Camps making awkward bunk-ups of strange bedfellows, for example, Jim Sillars and Jacob Rees Mogg both voting leave, Nicola Sturgeon and Lizz Truss, perhaps with equal sincerity, voting remain.
The plurality result for Scotland would have been No and Remain on 28% – which happened to be the sector I am in myself. However, even if that had been the case, still most Scots would not have got the constitutional settlement they voted for.
Most Scots Disagree With You
This two-referendum-analysis demonstrates three important lessons about implementing such democratic results:
- No matter how you voted in the last two referendums, most Scots fundamentally disagree with you on a core aspect of our constitutional settlement.
- No possible result in the referendums could have delivered the result most Scots voted for.
- Despite nationalist pseudo-europhile rhetoric, what’s actually on offer with independence is being out of both unions – the position that fewest Scots support.
This analysis also puts to bed the myth of ‘Civic Nationalism. The idea of civic nationalism suggests that rather than an ethnic basis, national identity is founded on pledging allegiance to some majority shared set of characteristically Scottish civic values. Maybe that could be something to aspire to, but when there is no majority view on something as fundamental to the state as the constitution, how can it exist?According to the SNP, the true Scottish Civic National ethos is for an independent Scotland in the European Union. Setting aside whether or not we would meet the criteria. ( Something I look at in far too much detail here) How can this be the orthodox ‘Scottish’ view when x% of Scots disagree with it?
Don’t tell the President, but we don’t have a President.
How many people voted for Nicola Sturgeon to be First Minister? From the electorate – None. We simply do not have a presidential-style system in Scotland, despite the best efforts of the SNP to make it appear that we do. Alex Salmond first pushed to have “Alex Salmond for First Minister” appear on regional ballot papers in Scottish elections in 2007.
“The slogan was said to have caused “confusion” among voters in 2007 when a breakdown in the counting system led to more than 140,000 lost votes.”
In my opinion – even if it would likely be the practical result of SNP regional votes, it was a misuse of the D’Hondt regional voting system, driven partly by ego and strategy. Nicola Sturgeon has continued with her mentor’s machinations. Unwilling to work within the rules of the democratic system, she has pretended the regional vote, designed to produce list MSPs to create broad proportionality, is a ‘de facto’ presidential vote – in much the way she plans to treat a general election as a ‘de facto referendum. The majority of Scots did not vote for the SNP, but we once again have an SNP First Minister.
At the basic level of understanding, and perhaps even that of many voters, democracy should be simple – everyone gets a vote, and what the majority of people vote for, everybody gets. Simple. Right? No.
What counts as a majority?
This isn’t the simple question it might seem. There are natural majorities, majority votes, qualified majorities, super-majorities, double majorities and more, manipulated by who gets to vote, how they vote and how the votes are counted! I’ve written about super-majorities here when discussing what bar we should set for constitutional change.
Remember the Mytileneans
When thinking of warning of the dangers of a bare majority, Brexit might be the first example that comes to mind. A 52% Majority of a 72% turnout on an ambiguous prospectus led to a result most of the electorate isn’t happy with. You might have views on if that’s right or wrong, valid or mistaken – so let’s look at an example from further away in history. Athens is considered the Mother of Democracy, and there were various systems of direct democracy over the years, including voting as tribes but also voting as citizens in the Athenian Assembly. The first Mytilenean Debate was the democratic process to decide on reprisals against the city-state of Mytilene, which had attempted unsuccessfully to shake off Athenian control during the Peloponnesian war with Sparta. The Athenian assembly debated the situation and voted on punishment. They democratically sentenced all of the male citizens of Mytilene to death, while the women and children would be sold into slavery. According to Thucydides, straight after the vote, a ship was sent to carry out the orders. This process was incredibly efficient – one of the arguments in favour of such simple majorities. The voters met, debated the issues, made a decision and gave orders to carry it out straight away.
Vote at haste, repent at leisure.
The next day, many Athenians felt uneasy. These were brutal times – but even by the standards of the time, the actions were incredibly brutal. A second debate was called. General Cleon was against changing the decision and highlighted one of the reasons some people genuinely prefer dictatorships to democracies.
“Personally I have had occasion often enough already to observe that a democracy is incapable of governing others, and I am all the more convinced of this when I see how you are now changing your minds about the Mytilenians.”
He finishes his speech urging the voters not to “be traitors to your own selves.”In Opposition, Diodotus spoke – he highlighted that decisions taken quickly in anger are often wrong and that the key issue should not just be if and how the Mytelanians should be punished but rather that the assembly had a responsibility to make the decision that was in Athen’s interest. He asked the Athenians to spare the Mytilenians in an effort to create an alliance.The vote was retaken, and mercy won – just. What had been a unanimous vote for slaughter the day before was now hesitant. The problem was – the boat had already been sent. A dramatic chase followed – the Athenians sent a second boat with twice the number of rowers so that they could row overnight. They arrived with moments to spare, catching up with the first boat just in time to prevent the slaughter, instead killing just the leaders of the revolt, removing the oligarchy and – foreshadowing future events, the instigated regime change and introduced democracy. The precedent I think we should take from eh Mylytelinian debate is that of confirmation votes. The Athenians were able, in direct democracy, where the citizens could push the agenda of the assembly, to reopen the debate after a decision had been made. In modern referendums in representative democracies, we don’t have that flexibility, so we should build that check and balance in – for example, with a confirmatory vote once the consequences are known.
The Voters are a subset of the electorate, who are a subset of the population – but their votes affect everybody. Is that fair?
Is it right that in a society where we want everyone to have a stake, the demos, the people who don’t engage with a vote, are completely discounted? Some would say yes – but the implications can be significant. In 2021 it was celebrated that voter turnout for the Scottish elections reached 63.2% – that is still pretty dire. That means in order to claim a “majority”, a party would only need to get 31.6% of voters. – fewer than one in three. In order to get a plurality, the bar was even lower. To put it another way, we can say that there is a democratic deficit when 68% of people might disagree with a party’s aims, motivation and policies – yet that party could claim a democratic mandate to speak for the whole of Scotland. First past the post is said to produce majority governments, but it isn’t a majority system – it is a plurality system. A majority means more than half, a plurality is just more than anyone else – which is divided and multi-party votes that can mean the largest minority gains majority power. The “Winner takes all” First Past the Post system gives an entire constituency to the candidate with the largest vote share. They are said to have a ‘majority’ over the second-place rival, but in reality, all they have is a plurality. There are clear examples of how pluralities lead to democratic deficits in Scotland. There is almost no limit to how imbalances results can be – and how that can be used as propaganda to set a narrative. Non Voters Aren’t counted – but do they count?One response to this is to say that non-voters have wasted their right to vote, so they have no right to complain. There are two issues with this. One – if none of the main parties represents them, not voting may be a form of protest rather than apathy. Two, it ignores the fact of voter suppression. Voter suppression has had a long and dirty history, especially with regard to race and class in the United States. Votes can be suppressed by putting in additional barriers to voting – such as requirements for costly photographic ID, or by limiting access to postal votes, or limiting access to and location of polling booths.
It often amazes me how many people who, like me, want to be in the EU don’t understand how most EU votes work. It’s often been put that the EU is different from the UK because Scotland would have an equal vote to other states, or that it is presumed it’s “one member, one vote” – this is NOT how most EU votes work.
There are some votes, such as on treaty change requiring ratification, where there is a member ‘veto’ so a small country can scupper a vote and do so for leverage. Most votes in the EU use a “qualified majority” – broadly speaking, this weights the country’s votes by population, so that France, for example, would have 11 times the weight of an independent Scotland in the EU. The democratic deficit that Nationalists complain about in the UK is that we only have 9% of the votes in the UK, so we can always be outvoted by England.
In the EU, if we ever did get in, we would have something like 1% of the votes and could be outvoted by any one of a number of larger countries. It speaks to the strength of the nationalist narrative in overcoming cognitive dissonance that they are outraged at Scotland having 9% influence in the UK, but claim to be happy to have 1% influence in the EU.
The fact there was a democratic deficit in the EU voting system was recognised, and reforms were put in place. When the Council votes on a proposal by the Commission or the High Representative of the Union for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy, a qualified majority is reached if two conditions are met:
- 55% of member states vote in favour – in practice, this means 15 out of 27
- the proposal is supported by member states representing at least 65% of the total EU population
This procedure is also known as the ‘double majority rule. 55% of the EU countries and 65% of the EU population. This rule is in place for around 80% of EU decision-making.
Reinforced Qualified Majority
When the European Council votes on a proposal not coming from the Commission or the high representative, a decision is adopted if the so-called ‘reinforced qualified majority is reached:
- at least 72% of Council members vote in favour
- they represent at least 65% of the EU population
Super Majority and Bare Majority Referendums
It has been suggested that referendums, especially referendums with a 50%+1 of vote threshold, are a democratically poor way of making decisions. Instead, their most valid use is as a way to confirm decisions where it appears there is already a settled will of the people.
D’hondt has shown us in Scotland how Proportional representation can be manipulated: with list-only parties standing when the list is meant to top up the constituency vote. D’hondt has also shown us that it doesn’t solve polarisation and division. A better system would be something like Ranked-choice voting, or alternative vote, for constituencies as well as regions. Voters are given a chance to put all the candidates in order of preference. There are big advantages to this system – people can vote honestly, not tactically – so new breakthrough candidates can get a shot. This can help against polarisation into two camps – as we see in the US. The system also forces candidates to be more moderate – to speak to a wider base rather than a small plurality of their core vote. Candidates in alternative votes are more likely to compromise. Divisive behaviour, as we see on both sides in Scotland, speaks to the base but can put off moderate voters.
Closing the Gaps
Some things are not problems to be solved; they are facts to be accepted. One of those facts is that every democratic system is flawed and has some level of democratic deficit. By definition, there will always be some subset of the electorate in a democracy that didn’t get the Government they voted for.
Arrow Voting Theorem
All voters who consider themselves politically astute should acknowledge that democratic deficits are both mathematically inevitable and highly subjective. The only way we can deal with them is by working against polarisation and towards consensus. Nobel Laureate Kenneth Arrow demonstrated the mathematical difficulties in designing voting systems that simultaneously meet the criteria of being free, fair and consistent. There are many different voting systems and scenarios – and it would be an oversimplification to say “there’s no such thing as a fair voting system”, but Arrow himself summarised”Most systems are not going to work badly all of the time. All I proved is that all can work badly at times”Democratic deficits are inevitable. All possible forms of democracy that exist or that we have been able to model are flawed in one way or another. The best we can do is try and add checks and balances.
Neither Independence Nor the Status Quo Fix Scotland’s Twin Deficits
Democracy requires compromises to function. WHATEVER the voting system, there will always be winners and losers at various points on various issues.If we want a society that is stable and just, one that is built on genuine consensus, then we need decisions by more than a bare majority of the electorate – if policies are genuinely for the public good, then politicians and parties need to make a better case to convince more people. This comes at a cost. Dictatorships are efficient. Bare Majorities are efficient – they can quickly make decisions and react quickly. Checks and balances add complexity and delay – but we can hope that the payoff is more consensus around better decisions. If we want to protect minority rights, sometimes a simple majority can’t always get what they vote for, but then that can come at the cost of amplifying the impact of extremist views.With both Labour Party members, and Liberal Democrat party policy, now reflecting the majority view in the UK that we should have some form of proportional representation, it’s clear we can work towards reform and improvement.
Voters want reform, not revolution.
Those who have pinned their mast to having grievances don’t want to try and improve the situation – they may even tell you that reform can never happen in the UK or that a UK Labour or UK Liberal party will never deliver it. This position collapses upon the barest of investigation.It was Liberals and Labour who drove the constitutional convention ( boycotted by the SNP) that brought about devolution. That was significant constitutional reform. It was Labour who scrapped hereditary peerages; that was reform. Brexit – an unsafe decision for the reasons I have outlined earlier, is still significant constitutional reform. It was cross-party work started under Major’s conservatives and completed under Labour, with compromise and consensus from Irish Nationalists and Ulster Unionists – that brought about power-sharing in Stormont and significant constitutional reform. Fragile reform, but better than violence, and cast iron proof that reform is not only possible but likely. Reform & consensus might not have the same emotional appeal as ‘viva la revolution, or burning the house down and starting again – but they are the mature, less risky way to move forward – and more importantly, a democratic way have most people moving in the same direction.
“You can’t always get what you want, but if you try sometimes, you might find you get what you need.”