SCOTTISH PARLIAMENT TURNS 20....
By Andy Maciver, Director, Message Matters
The Scottish Parliament is young. Like any 20-year-old, it has had its ups and downs. It has made mistakes. It has behaved like a toddler and a teenager. It has copied its parents without asking why.
But it has also shown glimpses of real talent. It has used its relative innocence to think differently. It has thrown open the doors of politics and government.
In short, it has done well enough that nobody wants to get rid of it. However, many people do want to make it better. And with the 20th anniversary of its opening upon us, this is a good time to ask how we can do that.
I would suggest that there are four critical changes which need to take place for us to be able to look at the Scottish political landscape with pride, and for others to look at it with admiration. Some are easier to achieve than others, but it seems reasonable to suggest that in another 20 years we may be in that place.
There is, self-evidently, an awareness of Holyrood’s weaknesses; shortly after his election as Presiding Officer Ken Macintosh MSP announced the Commission on Parliamentary Reform, saying that Holyrood was “not broken, but in need of an MOT”. Its report, though, lent itself to the feeling that the MOT was a pretty quick job aimed at walking out with the test certificate, rather than a detailed consideration of how we might make the car run smoothly into old age.
The most important of its recommendations was to strengthen the Committee system, principally through the election of conveners. This is worthy - in the absence of a revising chamber, Committees need to have the independence and impartiality to properly revise. The disciplinary strength of the SNP, in particular since the majority Parliament of 2011, has made this effectively non-existent.
However, amongst the other reforms there was nothing which could conceivably reverberate outside the Holyrood bubble. Principally, this is because genuinely radical changes are instinctively opposable by the general public, and they would have to be forcefully and consistently articulated in order to persuade the country that they are for the greater good.
For instance, it is highly likely that in order to make stronger, more impartial Committees a reality, we need more MSPs. “Not more politicians!!!!” etc etc. Yes, I’m afraid so. MSPs sit on two, sometimes three Committees at the same time and as a result of that stretch are often disengaged with their Committees’ work. A lesson we can learn from Westminster is that there is real competition to obtain a place on a Committee, and it encourages serious and detailed application by the politician to that Committee’s work.
This may not be enough. We need to be prepared to make a rational analysis, perhaps in another ten years, of whether these strengthened Committees are working and, if they are not, consider the creation of an elected upper chamber.
Furthermore - brace yourself - we need to pay MSPs far more. We expect our politicians to be clever, with experience of business, charities and public services; we expect them to be at every parliamentary vote but also at every school fair; we expect them to run surgeries in the evenings and at weekends, but we are angry if they try to earn money with a second job on a Monday and Friday. We expect all this for a person on a salary less than that of almost 700 staff working in Scottish Government quangos (Reform Scotland, 2014).
We could double the salary of every MSP for less than 0.03% of the Scottish Government’s annual expenditure. We should.
Foundation for debate
The other changes we need to see are about culture more than process. For reasons which are not always clear, although in large part have their roots in a lack of private donor funding in Scotland, we have struggled to create a credible, varied and deep set of academics and think tanks.
There are silver linings in the cloud; Reform Scotland (disclaimer: a client of my company) has long encouraged innovative policy thought, and more recently the IPPR and the Scottish Policy Foundation have entered the field of play. But this is not remotely enough - we need to at least double their number, and encourage the creation of sibling think-tanks which look at single issues. To do this will require funding, and it is healthier that these are private funds rather than public funds. Success will breed success - as we show our political class to be more able, more responsive and more innovative, corporate and individual donations will come.
A new media
The flip side of a reinforced academic ballast is a plural media to report it. Scotland’s media is in poor shape. Much of this must be laid at the door of the BBC, although this is probably without malice on its part. At both a national and local level, the BBC’s desire and ability to deliver everything from Scotland-wide to hyper-local news through its website has mortally wounded the printed press, and made what should have been an inevitable transition from print to paid-for online far too risky.
Similarly, the BBC’s taxpayer-backed financial clout has made it incredibly challenging for its competitor, STV, let alone for any new entrant to the market. Consider the fate of STV2, which was dependent on commercial revenue and was ultimately financially unable to take a long-term approach, compared to the soon-to-be-launched BBC Scotland channel, which has already made clear that it will run for at least a decade irrespective of ratings.
This is most unhealthy. In the final analysis, it can probably only be fixed by the abolition of the licence fee and the subjection of the BBC to the ordinary broadcasting pressures of ratings and advertising.
This may be the toughest change of all. But doing so would encourage a flourishing of a political and news media fit for an evolving 21st Century Parliamentary democracy; multiple broadcast options, a flourishing mainstream media (yes, with more pro-independence titles) based largely online and in app form, and the proliferation of blog and online-only sources of news.
The political parties
If there has been one failure of devolution above all others, it has been by the political parties themselves. We took the Westminster parties and implanted them into a different electoral system, in a different parliamentary structure, and expected it to work. It hasn’t. Isn’t hindsight wonderful?
With the benefit of that hindsight, though, we might have seen the rise of nationalism coming. This is not a comment or critique of nationalism - it is a perfectly legitimate and decent constitutional perspective, and it would have been a feature of our politics under all circumstances.
However the thoughtless overprinting of ‘Scottish’ on three parties ultimately run in London has made it supremely easy for the SNP to play 3v1 identity politics - Scotland versus the rest. To make matters worse, the historical weakness of the Conservatives (only recently reversed the independence referendum creating a market for unionism) has meant that for most of devolution’s 20 years the debate has been centre-left versus centre-left, with the only distinctions between the SNP and Labour being on passports and flags.
Consequently, thought leadership on public services, tax and spend has been rare, to put it kindly.
In Scotland we like to think of ourselves as having mainstream European politics, with England as a right-wing outlier. This is entirely wrong. In almost all European countries, a strong centre-left party and a strong centre-right party generally vie for power, usually in coalition with parties further to the left or right. Even in Scandinavia, the darling of the Scottish left, the Danish and Norwegian governments are currently controlled by the centre-right, the centre-left has just taken power back in Sweden and the centrists are controlling Finland.
Minus the proportional representation, Westminster is much more European, in this way, than Holyrood. Only with the replacement of Labour by the Tories as the official opposition has Scotland become more ‘normal’, but to complete that journey it needs more parties. At the very least we need more parties on the right, including pro-independence ones. And critically, we need parties to be genuinely de-linked from Westminster, so that they are of and for Holyrood.
This is likely to evolve, in any case, but if we find ourselves five years down the line with little change, we are going to need a few big bangs. Without them, there is little chance of us breaking out of the omnipresent constitutional arguments to move onto discussing how to improve the way of life of our country and our people.
By Andy Maciver, Director, Message Matters
OTHER ARTICLES IN THIS ISSUE
GDPR, SCOTTISH PARLIAMENT, PLANNING AND....BREXIT
There is a continuing and urgent housing crisis in the UK – something we only need eyes to know with so many homeless people on the streets and with so many young people struggling to access housing beyond the parental home. This is not a new problem. The cumulative shortfall in new home building, particularly in the affordable sector, has been the case for many years. Indeed if you look at housing delivery over the last forty years you will see a clear, downward trend, spanning the inevitable cycle of boom and bust.
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