Michael Russell inaugural lecture

Published: 2 February 2016

The Referendum for Independence has brought Scotland closer to achieving a more participative democracy, former Education Secretary Michael Russell MSP said in his inaugural lecture as Professor in Scottish Culture and Governance.

The Referendum for Independence has brought Scotland closer to achieving a more participative democracy, former Education Secretary Michael Russell MSP said in his inaugural lecture as Professor in Scottish Culture and Governance at the University of Glasgow on 1 February. 

Image of Michael Russell MSP“The growth of Scottish democracy over the past generation – and in particular the effect of three referenda on the constitution in the past 35 years – are in the process of producing at least the potential for a sea change,” Professor Russell said as he took up tenure of his new part-time academic post in what he described as his new  “intellectual home” in Glasgow, despite being an alumnus of the University of Edinburgh.

Professor Russell took a cultural view of democratic participation as well as a governance perspective, with a starting point the Union of the Irish and British Parliaments more than 200 years ago when “Henry Dundas  [once Rector of Glasgow University] controlled Scotland through a web of patronage in which electoral politics played only a small part”.

He also quoted “Scotland’s and probably the English language's first political novelist, John Galt” to assert that  there is once again “a reforming spirit abroad”which he believes needs to be captured and utilised by all the people of the country.

Professor Russell traced electoral reform and democratic progress since that time up to the present day and quoted recent research findings which claim that:

  • Levels of political engagement in Scotland are now higher than in the rest of the UK;
  • People in Scotland are very interested in the question of how the UK is governed and, in this, too, they differ from people in other part of the UK;
  • Though young people are generally less engaged with politics than older people, there is much less of a difference in Scotland than elsewhere;
  • Likewise, the tendency for better-educated people to be more engaged than the less well-educated, is weaker in Scotland than elsewhere.
  • Levels of dissatisfaction with the current democratic structures are higher in Scotland than in the rest of the UK.

“In a country with a high level of political interest (especially amongst young people) and yet with a low level of satisfaction with democracy, there is the likelihood of either disenchantment or radical change,” he warned.

Consequently, in his wide ranging lecture, Professor Russell proposed three institutional areas for change as a step towards a fully participative democracy. 

The first of these is in local government which, he claimed, “in many places has lost contact with those it is meant to serve”.

“City regions may be appropriate levels of subsidiarity for some things though a strengthening of community councils in cities would be essential if the current structure was maintained.

"In most of Scotland, however, a new dispensation is required with the division of the existing authorities into much smaller units, devolving down budgetary control to schools, transferring social care to the new integrated services (which need greater local input too, and certainly responsive local management) and focusing on the delivering of the key remaining local services through localised staff. Perhaps merging the existing network of largely powerless community councils with these smaller local councils would produce a new dynamism,” he adds.

He also called for changes to the way the Scottish Parliament works “so that it can fully utilise its new powers and live up to new expectations”.

Supporting the most recent set of recommendations  from the Parliament’s own Standards Committee of which he is a member he argues that modernisation should include a smaller number of committees covering larger subject areas, not necessarily mirroring the departments in Government, and with a smaller number of members; the development of a cohort of committee conveners, elected by the Parliament, not chosen by whips; and suggests work should be done to find a way to involve citizens to a greater extent.

Professor Russell also proposed the abolition of the current public appointments system in favour of a two-tier approach. This would involve the creation of a national recruitment agency to select a broader range of people for a national panel from which they would be appointed to national bodies following assessment by the responsible Minister, a committee for public appointments of the Parliament, and an independent commissioner.

First published: 2 February 2016