On Tuesday 4th of July, Orkney’s councillors voted overwhelmingly to explore alternative constitutional arrangements for the governance of the islands including “Nordic connections, crown dependencies and other options for greater subsidiarity and autonomy”.
Widely discussed on popular TV shows and gaining coverage in UK newspapers the motion by Leader of the council, James Stockan and his Depute Leader Heather Woodbridge, had captured the attention, as all good populists are able to do, of the media.
What are the costs associated with these investigations ? Who knows. We may have to start looking on the side of a bus, a favoured display area for populists when Facts are lacking.
Where has this great desire for constitutional reform come from? Was it a hot topic at the local elections last year? No it wasn’t.
But it has come up before. James Stockan did raise a variation of these ideas when he stood as a candidate for the Scottish Parliament in 2016. He had the support of 1,775 voters for his agenda then.
But populists never let voter support, or lack of it, hold them back, for there is always the worthy views of the random ‘man in the street’. Or as Nigel Farage likes to boast, the views of the ordinary man in the local pub.
Now discussing the constitutional future of Orkney, Scotland, the UK is no bad idea but in a healthy democracy it comes from a desire of the citizens to do so. They express this by casting their votes in elections. So for instance, holding a referendum on whether or not to leave the EU was a pledge in UK political party agendas . When people voted Tory they knew that this would happen. Similarly voters in Scotland have consistently returned a Scottish Parliament with a majority of pro Scottish Independence MSPS. Furthermore the SNP have said that at the next UK General Election a vote for them will be counted as a vote for Independence.
It doesn’t matter if you agree with those views or not – the point for our democracy is that these aims were stated clearly in the manifestos of the various political parties. Voters could then make their choice. There was some accountability.
The decision made by Orkney’s councillors, only elected last year, is not based on the democratic will of the people. None of them were elected on a mandate to spend our recently increased council taxes on investigations exploring how our islands are governed. But it plays on grievance and of whininess to people struggling with the cost of living.
Populism argues that elites are corrupt and the people need better representation, but makes very few policy commitments beyond this criticism. There’s been increasing distrust regarding political parties and politicians, especially given various funding and election scandals. And so people readily believe that these actors are corrupt and not to be trusted.
It is a message that is credible these days. It is also a message that doesn’t tie politicians down to any other ideological or policy commitment. “Populism is a political problem that is putting democracy at risk, Stanford scholars say”
The vagueness of the ‘investigations’, the use of the media, the attacks on both the Scottish and UK Governments – deflecting accountability away from the council’s own failures, the complete lack of a mandate from the electorate to use their taxes for this purpose – all of this is a warning about the populism which has taken root in Orkney’s Council Chamber and the cost is democracy.