Parliamentary democracy is simply not designed for modern day society and it is failing the people of the UK. Since 2012 there has been a constitutional conversation in Scotland on where the country is governed from and by whom. But the question of how we should be governed has largely been forgotten about. This is the opportune time to change the role of Parliament.
Parliament in the British Isles can be traced back to the early thirteenth century. Monarchs had always relied on assemblies for advice. But as Lords, Bishops and Abbots began to meet regularly and discuss matters of importance, it gained a degree of autonomy. This became the basis of the House of Lords. By 1265, the common people were represented by Knights of the Shires, Mayors and Alderman. This became the basis of the House of Commons. This was the birth of the modern parliament (1).
During this era, the four high offices of power were the Prime Minister, Chancellor, Foreign Secretary and the Home Secretary (2), with the main policy areas being taxation, law & order, foreign or colonial affairs and the war department. In the 21st (3) century it’s no longer this simple.
In our evolving modern society, health and education are now two of the top four issues in any election (4). Parliament is also managing policies such as equality, trade and industry, taxation, intelligence, climate change, culture, media, sport, international development, transport and the list goes on. The sad truth is most of these issues are not dealt with effectively and Parliament is being asked for ever more intervention in new areas such as mental health, monitoring social media and human rights. But Parliament was never designed to micromanage in this manner and it should stop trying.
Another problem with policy making is ongoing chronic short termism (5) especially within Western democracies. Every few years the education department gets a new Secretary who often profess that they can cure the education system with their solution(s). Education Secretaries are usually only around for a couple of years and then they move on to another department. Another minister comes in and says the same thing, implementing their solutions without allowing the previous minister solutions time to take root or effect and therefore creating confusion. And so on and so on and so on (6).
Most, if not all, governments seek to maintain power following election. In many cases this leads to avoiding long-term policy projects, risky policies and grappling with thorny issues. The next election is always just over the horizon, even though it is five years in the future.
The UK government struggles to maintain even the most basic standards
By not facing problems in our state-owned institutions and economy head on, we have developed a society dependent on food banks, not being able to top up electricity meters and children going to school hungry (7). People are struggling to meet the cost of living (8). Many people are working on zero hour contracts, giving a false impression of low unemployment figures (9). Our schools are overcrowded (10), housed in dilapidated buildings (11) and there are not enough teachers (12). These are just a few of the issues we face as a society. Society has not arrived here due to the failings of one party or the incompetence of any one Prime Minister, but because of short termism and failure to address that single issue.
One policy that is avoided by government is tax evasion and avoidance, especially in the UK (13). It’s been about reported that certain companies do not pay their fair share of tax in the UK (14). There have been reports of offshoring profits through various legal “loopholes.” If the government were to embark on a project to revamp all taxation issues in the UK, the exchequer could net up to sixteen billion pounds in extra revenues annually (15).
One way of undertaking this would be to switch from a tax on profits to a tax on sales. For example, if a product is bought in Scotland then the taxation is due to Scotland. There is a little movement in this area but nowhere near enough. To undertake a complete revamp, it would take a long time and cost money that Parliament does not want to spend.
The institutions in Scotland that would benefit from long term planning are the National Health Service (NHS), education system, transport and justice & policing. It would take two or three years just to formulate these new strategies and possibly a further ten years, or more, before we see the fruits of the nation’s labour. This is the part that will scare off most MSPs since they don’t want the blame for high expenditure without visible results. However, if the people have voted for long term policies they will not blame the MSPs for high expenditure at the next ballot box. They will be able to separate the two issues. The people will know this is a long-term plan and there will be bumps along the way. As long as they see progress, MSPs will be safe.
But how will this look like? We can look at the education system to see how it could look like.
Case study: The education system
The current schooling system generally goes like this: You sit down in a room for a few hours, listen to a teacher talk to you and behave. This method has been tried and tested and is now failing as it is - boring. Society has evolved. We understand that not all children learn the same way, have the same capabilities or are able to sit down long enough. They have too much energy that isn’t being used up. Many children have mental health issues and there are disabilities that need to be addressed head on. Children have different personalities traits which are not handled very well by teachers. There is a myriad of issues our one-size-fits-all style of education cannot cope with. We continuously hammer a large square peg through a very small round hole.
The education system should be detached from central government and parliament and be set up as a not for profit, stand-alone institution with its own board of trustees. This board of trustees could mirror a board of directors at most large companies. This board would comprise mainly of education professionals for curriculum purposes, business executives for financial & business knowledge and strategy, and MPs for democratic and public oversight. MSPs would not be involved with the policy making in the same manner as they are today. They are there to represent the people and to ensure they follow the plan laid down. They are oversight only. If there is to be an intervention, this should take place through the committee system to justify the intervention. And there would have to be very good reasons.
These trustees would have to establish a working group to send education professional to other countries on a fact-finding mission. This mission would be to investigate how other countries organise their education services. They should also find out what not to do. Once this has been undertaken and all the information has been processed a long-term strategy can be formulated.
What should be included in this long-term plan is first and foremost how we educate our children and what are the basic principles of our education system. Then decide what facilities we have and what we need and what we don’t need in the school estates Scotland currently owns.
One plan could be:
Nursery: for up to six years olds. Children at this level can learn the very basics in English and Arithmetic. Any nursery nurse should be able to teach these subjects, given the proper training. It does not have to be a full time primary teacher on every occasion.
The environment in which they learn should be facility where all children can be free to learn, run and be themselves. As the World Innovation Summit for Education reported in their “Better Space, Better education” video, Japan has built a new circular school which has had huge success in letting kids be themselves.
There should also be on trips to farms to see where food comes from and how it is planted, grown and harvested. While at the farm they can learn about the environment, our planet and recycling. The education system can work alongside the farmers and organisations such as Friends of the Earth to deliver these subjects.
The class could stay on the farm for a week, provided the proper facilities are built. This would free up a week for the teacher to catch up with marking and some rest time for parents.
Primary: for up to 11 year olds. Children learn more in-depth English, Math, Science, Political Issues, Languages, running a home, cooking and trips to the museums and forests. Many subjects can be taught by visiting university professors and fellows, environmentalists in forests and professionals in the workplace.
Schooling needs to have a practical element as well as an academic one. Children need to learn how to run a home. Home Economics is a fine subject but it fails to address some of the issues we face when we move out of home for the first time. Setting up a bank account, mobile phone costs, using a heating system and generally saving money in our household bills. These are all issues that children need to learn about.
A game can easily be created for children to use on an electronic pad where they begin to run a virtual home. How to use the heating system, how to cook, how to set up a household budget etc are all important practical skills that need to be developed before people leave home. However, it cannot be dry, it has to be done with some Sheldonesque humour (Dr Sheldon Cooper in The Big Bang Theory). Humour will help keep children’s attention.
Many school children suffer from peer pressure and bullying at school. For example the media has told them they all need to have an acceptable figure, i.e. teenage girls must wear make-up and be skinny, teenage boys must have a minimum bicep size. This creates enormous pressure for children in the modern age.
Run a household as a game at school
The game can incorporate video messages which will play at certain times. For example, if you switch energy supplier in the game and change payment method this could save about £400 per year in the real world. In the game a video could then play with a skinny geeky guy with glasses and no pecs and a girl with greasy hair and spots. They could tell the player that they have just saved £400 and with that money can pay for a long weekend surfing in San Sebastian. They could then turn around and run into the sea with their surf boards, showing off his skinny white legs and her big bum. This can push the message home to the player that it is normal to look like this. At the same time as learning how to save money around the home players can see how they can spend their money living life rather than drinking cheap cider outside the local shop. It won’t cure the problem by itself, but it can be one part of the jigsaw.
Secondary: for up to 16 year olds or S1 to S5. This is where children learn the details of the subject traditionally taught in schools, whilst maintaining a strong emphasis in physical education and not sitting at a desk all day. There should still be a degree of getting out of the school environment and being educated in a fluid working environment and the outdoors.
The secondary level should be reduced to a compulsory five years and pupils receive a new Secondary Certificate of Education covering all their subjects. From this point most children will decide whether to move onto further education, apprenticeships or into full time work.
As the new schooling facilities are built, both estates and curriculum, support for those in a wheelchair, have down syndrome, a form of autism or any other “disability” should be built in. This will allow all children of all abilities to reach their potential and allow all children to be included in all aspect of education and development.
What is written here is not the full picture, nor a White Paper, but simply an examples of ideas.
Disentangling the NHS, the Police and Justice services from Parliament
This process can be replicated for other services that are in dire need of long term planning. The NHS, the Police and Justice services and transport network system should be disentangled from Parliament and government.
The NHS needs to have more in the home care rather than everything being done in a GP surgery or in a hospital. Policing needs to be more community orientated. Many of the crimes being put in front of a full court are petty and use up court time. Many of these crimes could be dealt with in a “police station hearing” with the police and a local councillor or List MSP. This would allow more serious crimes to be heard in a full court sooner, speeding up justice for the survivors of the crime. The transport network needs to be more integrated and there should be transport hubs in Glasgow, Edinburgh, Perth, Inverness and Aberdeen which would work in-conjunction with the tourist industry.
If these four departments are no longer under the auspices of the MSPs and are entirely independent then this would reduce the role of Government and Parliament in our lives. But this is not necessarily a bad thing. Do we really want to be governed or would we prefer an executive which administers our nation on our behalf so we can get on with our lives without hindrance? Instead of a governing of peoples, we have administration of things, in the words of Engels.
During the referendum on Britain’s membership of the EU, one of the arguments put forward by the Leave camp was that the EU is too far away and is not relevant in our day to day lives. The EU is more a regulatory body than a law-making one, so it is not in our day to day lives. For example, the EU advises chefs what temperature food should be cooked to, it tells mobile phone companies that they can’t rip us off with roaming charges and it sets out guidelines on clean beaches and rivers. The EU is not involved with day to day policing, health or education. Do people want the EU to be involved in these issues? The answer is: probably not.
It is good that the EU is distant from the public- the farther away the better. It should be getting on with things across the globe and not monitoring the height of our hedge rows or how to fill in potholes.
Let the EU take care of what the UK is not able to tackle on its own
The EU needs to be resolving issues such as Syria, the Ukraine, and ISIS. It should be having constructive talks with Russia, Iran and North Korea from a position of collective strength. It should be using its collective political will to get to grips with global environmental issues such as deforestation, desertification and pollution. It should be using its mighty economic muscle to build a global water, energy and food network so everyone is fed, watered and warm with a roof over their head. Whether the EU does this as a European version of the United States of America or as another style of federated state or as confederation is another essay. It is clear the independent member states can no longer tackle these issues on their own.
This was evident with the recent conflicts in the Ukraine and Syria. It was noticeable the UK could not oppose Russia as it has done so on many occasions throughout history. The Crimean War for example and the Great Game in Afghanistan in the late nineteenth century. The UK no longer has the military capacity to take on this scale of conflict independently. The same applies to France and Germany and other EU member states that were once so powerful. It is time for the EU to take on more responsibilities.
One of the side effects of this style of constitution is that London would become expensive middle management that Scotland would no longer require. Scotland is a much more natural state than Great Britain. Much like Yugoslavia and Czechoslovakia, ‘Great Britain’ is a manufactured state that will, eventually, pass its sell by date and become redundant, as in the case of Czechoslovakia, peacefully. If Brussels takes on the matter of foreign policy and defence, and Edinburgh takes on the role of executive supervisor of domestic policies such as health, education and justice, then what will London govern? Or will the UK simply dissolve into history? Maybe the sun will finally set on the Empire.
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