Thursday, 14 November 2013

Local choice and democracy: normal life versus tobacco control

How local is democracy? This question arises in relation to the news that elections to local health boards will not now occur, as reported by columnist Lesley Riddoch here. (Her recently published book Blossom covers similar arguments.)

She talks about how to make Scotland blossom: how to arrange matters so that far more of its population can access its natural resources. One major point of comparison is that 'local' in Scotland is fairly meaningless, considered in the example of, say, Strathclyde or the Highland Region, where populations under regional administration are vast, as is the area covered. 
Every way you measure it, Scotland is doing badly. In Norway, with genuinely community-sized, tax-raising municipalities of around 14,000 people, election turnouts range from 70-82 per cent and one in 80 Norwegians stands for election. In Scotland, community councils have a tiny average annual budget of £400 and no statutory clout and services are provided instead by large council bureaucracies for an average 162,000 people. These “local” councils receive most of their cash from central government. Turnout in the 2012 elections was 38 per cent and one in 2,071 Scots stood for election.
I am just reading another book about how multiparty democracy and proportional government make for a greater diversity of political parties, and the paragraph above goes some way to explaining why this doesn't seem to happen in Scotland. More centralised administration yields fewer parties, lower political participation, and lower living standards generally. Scotland is far from being the worst governed country in the world, but it seems to have much to learn about increasing democratic participation.

If Scottish democracy is characterised by a shortage of public representatives below regional council level, ASH Scotland represents a stark contrast in its flow chart illustrating the Scottish Tobacco Control Alliance. This is top-down stuff, but they are organising the whole country into tobacco control groups at all levels. (All right, not quite the whole country.) Topic groups, smoking cessation groups, working groups, member organisations, overseen by the SCTA, ASH Scotland, and further up the tree the European Union, the UK government, the Framework Convention on Tobacco Control (FCTC), and overall the Scottish government 'involving the tobacco control community in developing and implementing policy'.

It's an impressive level of networking, but it should not be top-down, and is crushingly narrow in its outlook. We have huge problems in our country of chronic ill health, poverty and under-representation, but the answer seems to be – just don't smoke.

Even people who do support certain tobacco control initiatives should worry about the centralised nature of this drive for greater tobacco control which is entirely centre funded, has tentacles throughout and beyond all health boards and is mirrored by the absence of any real local democracy.

1 comment:

Junican said...

It seems to me, Belinda, that much of the organisation is a paper one. I have a copy of some ASH minutes of a meeting. A person at the meeting was complaining that the 'grass roots' activists were a dying breed.
I suspect that much of it is astroturf.