Scottish politics is presently dominated by the question of the country’s constitutional future. When the parched and uninspiring issues of currency, treaty renegotiation and pensions liabilities drop briefly from the broadsheets, it is also characterised by animated discussion of the kind of political and welfare institutions we’d like to see shaping our society.
But traditional modes of political engagement are in decline in Scotland as in the rest of the UK. Party and union memberships are down, as is turnout on polling day,there is unprecedented popular disinterest in electoral politics. It’s vital that we think seriously about the future of political engagement in Scotland, and examine the prospects for a more inclusive and more profoundly democratic politics than that offered by our current model of representative government.
There are some encouraging signs. The burgeoning community agriculture movement promises to decentralise and democratise control over the use of local land and premises. Meanwhile, new forms of community care and education, like the Broomhill Health Strategy Group and the organisations represented by the Community Health Exchange, demonstrate that group-based, extra-institutional models of political association are playing larger roles in Scotland’s civic life.
I met John Hancox, organiser of the Holyrood Apple Day and the Commonwealth Orchard project, which offers training to Central Belt community groups attempting to establish their own orchards. He believes the growing community agriculture movement in Scotland has profoundly democratic overtones.
Community orchards arise when disused public and private land is turned over to fruit growing and planned and maintained by the local community. Hancox is keen to stress that the significance of Scottish community growing lies mainly in its political dimensions, rather than its environmental ones. What matters is that local people are actively involved in shaping their surroundings, not that they’re shortening the food supply chain and eschewing pesticides. It is a low-cost, low-maintenance way of involving people in productive enterprise, putting Scotland’s vast reserves of vacant land into use.
“Positive graffiti” is Hancox’s term for it: when people are able to materially alter their environment through their own efforts, rather than relying on governmental institutions to impose a specific conception of what the public space ought to look like. It’s this inclusivity and empowerment that makes community controlled spaces different from those designed and laid out by the council, or allotment plots. Though individual allotments do typically provide creative fulfilment to those fortunate enough to have the use of one, that reward is essentially private. Community agriculture brooks a radically different notion of shared space - as an environment open to the exercise of direct and consensus-based control over its design and purpose.
Interest in this form of political engagement is growing- Hancox estimates that there are over 500 community orchards now operating in schools and on disused plots of public and private land in Scotland, plus tens of larger community farms in Forres, Fairlie, Angus, Glasgow and elsewhere, as well as intermittently active groups more overtly aimed at challenging traditional property rights – such as the Glasgow Guerilla Gardeners. Nor is this trend rooted only in agriculture: Scotland’s Hacklabs - “community-operated physical spaces where people with common interests can meet, socialise and collaborate”- in Glasgow, Edinburgh and Findhorn offer skill-sharing opportunities and community use of costly tools and machinery, thereby democratising access to high technology and education.
Of course, there is more at work here than merely growing apples: this democratisation of physical space might well spill over into a complementary democratisation of the political space. Bertrand Russell’s pronouncement on the appetite for elite power rings true in this more positive context: ‘power is a drug, the desire for which increases with the habit’. If the widespread disinterest in electoral politics stems, at least in part, from a refusal to believe that the institutions of government listen to ‘ordinary’ voices, it’s reasonable to suppose that first-hand experience of ‘making a difference’ might furnish people with the confidence required to engage critically with representative government.
While the future of social and political engagement in Scotland may well lie outside the institutions of state, they must still play a part in shaping it. First, central government can relax legal restrictions on the use of land and introduce measures giving communities a right to take over vacant lots in their area. That is precisely what Local Government minister Derek MacKay’s Community Renewal and Empowerment bill, presently at the consultation stage, promises to do. Meanwhile, the petition ‘Land for the Landless’ (PE1433), currently before the Scottish Government’s Local Government and Regeneration committee, calls on the parliament to make this a reality. Second, as Hancox notes, councils can play an important facilitating role on the ground. They can use their expertise to assess land for contamination, thereby enabling local groups to work there safely, and they can engage proactively with landowners and communities to identify opportunities and spaces ripe for turning over to community groups. Amongst other things landowners might take into consideration, vacant land is bad for property prices. (See The Economic Impact of Greening Urban Vacant Land: a Spatial Difference-in-Differences Analysis.)
That ‘Land for the Landless’ and the Community Renewal and Empowerment bill are being taken seriously in government indicates that politicians recognise an opportunity to create a more fulfilled and engaged citizenry. The principle driving some of the debate over independence and further devolution - that people should have full control over decisions affecting their own lives and communities - also countenances opening up the public space, on a genuinely democratic basis, to community groups.
Whatever the constitutional arrangements adopted in 2014, we may be seeing the rise of a vital new wave of political engagement. As the institutions of representative government appear more remote and less relevant than ever to the majority of people, electoral politics simply cannot be their only democratic outlet or sole means of exercising political power.