Is Holyrood living up to the principles it was founded on?

  • First published in : Visit Website
  • First published on: 18th Mar 2022

Whether or not indyref2 happens next year – and readers should appreciate that I am completely out of the loop on the plans– our parliamentary democracy is due an overhaul. It’s easy to criticise Westminster but there are problems closer to home. This is not just my view but the view of Prof James Mitchell, Professor of Public Policy at the University of Edinburgh, and a seasoned commentator on the Scottish political scene. 

In an article in this month’s edition of Scottish Left Review https://www.scottishleftreview.scot/scotland-as-a-centralised-state/ he deplores Scotland’s over centralised system of government. Lesley Riddoch has written extensively about the shortcomings of local government in Scotland compared to every other European nation. She reprised some of these points in her column yesterday, so I am going to concentrate on the implications of Professor Mitchell’s critique for Holyrood.

Prof Mitchell concludes that the failure to address the deficiencies in our system

“….makes Scotland stand out as an outlier along with the rest of the UK in European local governance. For all the talk of being more European, of abandoning the Westminster model of government, today’s Scottish polity looks as insularly British with a Holyrood cherry on top of that which existed pre-devolution. How we constitute ourselves is one of the most basic, if multi-faceted, issues in politics. It has to be about more than creating a Parliament and accumulating power for the executive in the Parliament’s name. We have lost sight of the ideals of self-government that animated earlier debates and stuck with a Scottish variant on the system that was supposed to be rejected. For all the talk of popular sovereignty, what has emerged is a mini-Westminster in which the executive is dominant, Parliament is compliant, and any other potential sources of legitimacy are denuded of authority.”

This pointed criticism should concern all parties in Holyrood, not just those who support independence. However, it poses a particular challenge for the independence supporting parties because we are supposed to be fully committed to doing things differently to Westminster. So how will those parties respond to this challenge and when? The creation of the Scottish Parliament was informed by four key principles; sharing power between the people, the legislators and the executive; - accountability of the executive to the Parliament and of both to the people; - access and participation of the people and legislators in decision-making and the promotion of equal opportunities for all. The Constitutional Convention that brought about devolution had identified that at Westminster, power was too concentrated in the hands of the executive, and they wanted the Scottish parliament to be different. But is it? And is it living up to its founding principles?

If we look at just one example identified by Professor Mitchell, the answer is no. He argues that the Scottish Parliament’s committee system is much weaker than Westminster’s which was reformed over a decade ago. He is right.  At Westminster there are standing select committees established to scrutinise the work of each government department. The chairs of these committees are directly elected by MPs in a secret ballot ensuring their independence from the government of the day. Ordinary seats on the committees are much sought after, and MPs in the Labour and Tory party have to submit themselves to internal elections to secure a place. In the SNP who gets to sit on a committee is up to the group leader, an approach which we could do with revisiting.

In practice even chairs from the ruling party act independently and are not afraid to criticise the government trenchantly. Separate bill committees are constituted to scrutinise each government bill. At Holyrood the two functions are combined, and the chairpersons of the committees are determined by party whips meaning they are far more likely to toe the party line. Fairly constituted committees with independent chairs are particularly important to ensure scrutiny of government actions and legislation, especially where there is no second or revising chamber.

The shortcomings of the Holyrood system were highlighted this week when it emerged that the membership of the committee charged with scrutinising the Gender Recognition Reform (Scotland) Bill was dominated by MSPs who are members of a cross party pressure group which supports self-identification and has excluded lesbians and feminists who disagree. Concerns had already been expressed about the partiality of the deputy convenor who is on record of accusing people who disagree with self ID of transphobia .  No one expects MSPs not to have a position on government legislation informed by the manifesto commitment on which they stood. But in this respect, it is worth remembering that only the Liberal Democrats and the Greens explicitly supported self-identification in their party manifestos and together they have only 12 of the parliaments 129 MSPs.

Furthermore, the issue is not so much that the majority of MSPs on the committee are on one side of the argument but that they have embraced an approach which shuts down debate and seeks to silence the other side and demonise their views. When lesbians and feminists are only allowed to be part of the parliament’s cross-party group on LGBTI+ issues if they espouse gender identity theory, we are a long cry from the parliament’s founding principle of equal opportunities for all.

Parliament’s function is to hold the government to account. That means every single MSP who is not part of the ministerial team, not just those on the opposition benches. The opposition are there to put forward a case that they should replace the government, however backbench MSPs of the party of government should be there to cajole, improve and stretch the government of the day to do better. MSPs are not answerable to the press teams of their parties or paid party staffers. They work for the people and for the greater good of the country. As Edwin Morgan put it in his poem for the opening of our parliament; “What do the people want of the place? They want it to be filled with thinking persons as open and adventurous as its architecture. A nest of fearties is what they do not want…… A phalanx of forelock-tuggers is what they do not want.”

Scotland’s first citizens’ assembly was charged with thinking about what kind of country we are seeking to build. They addressed the issue of MSPs working to party lines rather than engaging in critical thinking of their own, recommending that MSPs be encouraged to act on the views of their constituents, rather than sticking with party lines. They said MSPs should actively consult with constituents on matters which may have an impact on their community and on matters about which a significant number of constituents have shown concern.

Some of their key recommendations included the involvement of citizens in decision making with a proposal for a House of Citizens to scrutinise government proposals and give assent to parliamentary bills, a sort of second chamber if you like. Alternatively, they recommended the regular use of citizens’ assemblies to look at difficult issues where politicians cannot come to agreement, and to ensure accountability for follow up.

Just think how the use of a citizens assembly might have improved the debate around and scrutiny of proposals for reform of the Gender Recognition Act, as it did in Ireland on the equally fraught issue of abortion rights. This is something I first proposed, together with a trans constituent, back in June 2019. Sadly, our pleas fell on deaf ears.

The innovative proposals of the first Citizens' Assembly are very much in keeping with Scotland’s constitutional tradition of the people being sovereign and I hope they will not be left to languish on the shelf. It is interesting to think how Scotland’s constitution may have developed had Scotland not become part of the union. However, we do not need to wait for independence to start acting on some of these suggestions. Indeed, our parliament and our parliamentarians need to be ready for the challenges ahead.

If, as Ian Blackford has suggested, the second independence referendum is to be further delayed, we need a revamp of Holyrood. If the indyref is indeed imminent, Prof Mitchell’s analysis shows how important it is that work on an interim constitution focuses on proper checks and balances on executive power and meaningful scrutiny mechanisms.   

Joanna Cherry QC MP

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