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In the interests of democracy Scotland’s Parliament needs reform | Ross Thomson

“There shall be a Scottish Parliament” is the opening article of the Scotland Act 1998 established Scottish devolution. All matters not explicitly reserved to the UK Parliament would automatically be the responsibility of the Scottish Parliament.

A new, powerful, legislature with control over the nation’s health service, justice system, infrastructure, transport network, schools, colleges, universities, policing, energy and more. In more recent years we have seen the Scottish Government muscle its way into UK foreign policy with opening “international offices” in Beijing, Berlin, Copenhagen, Dublin, Ottawa, Paris and Washington DC. The Scottish is the most powerful devolved legislature in the world and with the Scotland Act 2016 the Parliament is even more powerful than when it was created, gaining powers over income tax, air passenger duty and social security.

Over the last fourteen years politicians such as Tony Blair, Gordon Brown and David Cameron have been all to eager to empower the Scottish Parliament whilst entirely ignoring how the exercising of such power is robustly scrutinised. The Voltaire adage, popularised by Spider-Man, is that “with great power comes great responsibility”. The ability to hold the Scottish Government responsible for the powers it exercises is terrifyingly non existent. This is not hyperbole, but a factual observation of the functioning of the Scottish Parliament where its function of scrutinising the executive simply has not kept pace with the growing powers of Ministers.

When the Scottish Parliament was created it’s founding New Labour fathers paid scant regard to establishing strong processes to hold the executive to account. In their view why would they be needed? New Labour was at the peak of its power in the UK, issues could be fixed by picking up the phone to party colleagues in Government, and Labour look set to retain its position of power in Scotland indefinitely. Donald Dewar and the rest of them took for granted labour’s Scottish dominance, and therefore, pesky parliamentary checks and balances would simply get in the way.

Scottish Labour’s complacency caught up with them. In 2007 they lost the Scottish Parliamentary election to Alex Salmond’s SNP. The new First Minister established a minority Scottish Government which went on to become a majority Government in 2011. At the 2016 and 2021 Scottish Parliamentary elections the SNP were returned to Government under Salmond’s successor Nicola Sturgeon and the SNP’s dominance of the Scottish Parliament and of Scottish politics, despite everything that has happened in between, looks unlikely to change in the foreseeable future.

Currently Scotland endures an authoritarian and illiberal Government which puts nationalism, ideology and the state ahead of individual liberty, personal freedom and pragmatism. The apparatus of the Scottish Government has been weaponised in a constant constitutional conflict with the UK Government and is held hostage to Sturgeonism, an autocratic style of leadership where there is no compromise and dissent is never tolerated. Since 2016 this my way or the highway style of Governing with a party bound in a slavish devotion to it’s leader has exposed serious and deeply troubling flaws in the Scottish Parliament’s ability to hold those in power to account.

The Scottish Parliament was established to be very different to the Westminster Parliament. From its electoral system to its committee system the Scottish Parliament was designed to be the antithesis of its Westminster mother. From the legislative process, to its family friendly hours and even in its ultra-modern look, it was determined that the Scottish Parliament would operate differently. However, in doing so a major weakness was created.

Westminster’s great strength is it’s ability to scrutinise the Government and the ability MP’s, often including those of the Governing party, to hold Minister’s to account. That is why Ministers fear a select committee grilling or a Commons Question Time. Since 2016 this weakness within the Scottish Parliament has not only been exacerbated but it has been taken advantage of by a powerful executive.

With poor scrutiny comes poor legislation. Since 2016 there are a number of bad laws that have been forced through by the SNP party whip, but I will highlight two of the most stinkingly bad. There was the named person provisions within The Children and Young People (Scotland) Act 2014, which would have created an Orwellian style state snooper scheme with a named state guardian for every child. This was blocked by the Supreme Court and branded by them “totalitarian”.

Then there is the recent Gender Recognition Reform (Scotland) Bill forced through the Scottish Parliament which is now, to the relief of the majority of Scots, being blocked by the UK Government using a Section 35 Order. MSPs who put loyalty to party over Parliament by failing to provide robust scrutiny of legislation and of the Government are undermining the legitimacy of the Parliament in the eyes of the public.

In comparison the Scottish Parliament’s committees are weaker than their Westminster counterparts. Such weakness means less scrutiny. Less scrutiny means they cannot set the political agenda in the way that Westminster committees can. The reports and recommendations produced by Scottish Parliamentary committees can be so easily dismissed, remember when the committee investigating the Alex Salmond scandal concluded that First Minister Nicola Sturgeon had misled Parliament? Could you imagine even now Boris Johnson getting away with a similar conclusion of the Commons Privileges Committee?

However, the greatest undermining of scrutiny in the Scottish Parliament is the unassailable power of the party whip. Either through coalition Government or majority Government the ruling party/parties can dominate the Scottish Parliament and its committees. The progress of legislation through the Scottish Parliament is determined by the position of the party whip, not the evidence gained through committee scrutiny. Business in the Chamber is determined by Business Managers (Party Whips) and MSPs are only able to speak in Parliamentary Chamber Debates if the party whip grants them the privilege.

This is in stark contrast to the Westminster system where every MP is equal and every MP has the right to speak. Whether or not MPs are in or out of favour with the Government they can be called upon by the independent Speaker of the House to contribute to a debate. Within the Scottish Parliament the role of political parties is centralised and decisions of who speaks and who serves on a committee are made by whips. This is a devastating to independent scrutiny. The power vested in party whips makes MSPs political nodding donkeys rather than parliamentarians.

This is why the Scottish Parliament fails so much in scrutiny. Too many politicians have jumped to the conclusion that a second revising chamber is needed. Trust a politician to want to create more jobs for politicians! The last thing the people of Scotland need is the expense of paying for even more partisan politicians, their offices, their expenses and the operation of their chamber. Such money could more wisely be spent on our public services where it can actually do some good. A unicameral system, such as the Scottish Parliament, does have the potential to provide checks and balances on the executive if it is set up properly. Simply fix the committees and break the power of the party whip as I have outlined in this paper.

After two decades the Scottish Parliament is in need of reform. MSPs need to be empowered to hold the Government to account and scrutinise legislation. It is in the interests of all Scots and the public services that we care about that this happens. Finally, some MSPs seem to be cottoning on to this and it is encouraging to see former SNP Health Secretary Alex Neil join in the call for reform.

The SNP are shout loud about democracy but they do not practice what they preach. No Government wants to lessen its power and threaten its agenda by empowering parliamentarians. But if the SNP leadership is as passionate about Scottish democracy as it claims, if its so called defence of democracy is to be more than a weapon in its constitutional warmongering, then it can lead by example and strengthen democracy here at home, where it is so badly needed.

However, I won’t be getting my hopes up.

1 Comment

Stephen Stewart
Stephen Stewart
Jan 27, 2023

If Scotland was to have devolution, then better the proposed 1978 Scottish Assembly (based largely on the 1974 Northern Ireland Assembly model, minus the power-sharing Executive of the latter) than the ill-conceived current Scottish Parliament model, of which was taken practically wholesale by New Labour from the Scottish Constitutional Convention 1995 report... and which consisted of and was compiled by a cross-section of Scottish lefties... so no wonder it's been a democratic disaster.

People seem to forget that through much of the 1970's, devolution for Scotland was official Tory policy, at least until the Thatcher administration which was opposed to Scottish home rule and repealed the 1978 Scotland Act establishing a devolved Assembly north of the border a mere month…


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