Why we are not citizens

21st February 2003 at 00:00
Let's Do Democracy. Video, 20 min, available in English, Gaelic and British sign language. Sent free to schools. Education.service@Scottish.parliament.co.uk tel 0131 348 5405

A video about Scottish democracy is pacy but needs more exploration of basic principles

Launched last term at the Scottish Parliament, Let's Do Democracy is a video for schools that explains the workings of the Parliament and, allegedly, the principles of democracy.

Targeted at the upper end of primary environmental studies and S1 and S2 modern studies, the video has been distributed free to every school in Scotland thanks to funding from the Gordon Cook Foundation.

The zappy-style video is unlikely to date too quickly in some respects.

Pupils taking part (from Hillpark Secondary, Glasgow, Firrhill High, Edinburgh, and Plockton High, Highland) wear uniform, so future classes will not be distracted by yesteryear's fashions. But the sequences where pupils play MSPs in the chamber on the Mound will be outdated when the new Parliament building opens.

One futuristic sequence nicely realised by the Glasgow pupils ("live on the Justice Channel") shows what might happen to dissenters in an Orwellian dictatorship, so highlighting how democracy protects freeedom of speech.

In terms of Scottish democracy, this trial strangely recalls the fate of early democrats, such as Thomas Muir of Huntershill, who were condemned to penal servitude for expressing the ideas of Thomas Payne and pursuing basic principles of democracy.

The historical development of Scottish democracy is not touched upon but that is not necessarily a criticism of a film that is about the new parliament.

However, when one of the defendants in the futuristic trial says in defence "We are good citizens", surely explanation is needed. We are not, nor ever have been, citizens and remain, for the foreseeable future, subjects of the Crown.

This may seem an academic point but without a written constitution there are no inalienable rights here. There have been many cases of supposedly fundamental rights being usurped, such as Churchill's internment of Italian men during the Second World War and trials without jury in Northern Ireland. These are special cases, but won't there always be special cases?

The point remains that you cannot produce a video titled Let's Do Democracy (as opposed to Let's Do the Parliament) without examining the principles of democracy.

On the other hand, there is an implication in the video that democracy didn't quite exist in Scotland before devolution. While pre-devolved Scotland may have suffered a democratic deficit, no one could argue that fundamentally it was not a democracy.

One interesting feature the video does raise is that anyone, whether of voting age or not, can petition the Scottish Parliament, as demonstrated by health fanatics from Firrhill High who want to ban smoking in public places.

There are excellent sound-bites from pupils. The NHS is "a slight mess" (let's hope that one dates soon); Highland holiday homes, it is argued, should be taxed at a higher rate because of local housing shortages; and "the Skye bridge is a disgrace".

Committee structures and parliamentary procedures are explained without yawns, though the Plockton High pupils do well not to drop off while viewing proceedings via a video link.

MSPs, including Jack McConnell and cuddly Green ex-teacher Robin Harper, chat about democracy in action. We learn that MSPs all want to raise issues in the Chamber but few get the chance to be heard fully. The result, we are told, is more disgruntled MSPs at the end of the week than happy ones. A bit like the staffroom, then.

Raymond Ross is an associate lecturer with the Open University

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