Most people now appreciate that, in comparative perspective, Westminster really is not the mother of all Parliaments after all. We may have thought that in the era before mass communication simply because we were ignorant to all the alternatives.
These days, however, there is no excuse. Especially as we have a beacon of best practice right on our doorstep. The London-centric media had until now tried to pretend it didn’t exist. Then, with the al-Megrahi excitement, they suddenly realised that there was a lot of good stuff going on there…
The real political anoraks will, of course, say that that has been the case for a very long time. Sure, it was always going to take time to bed in, but after 10 years of restored devolved government, it is a very opportune moment to consider some of the things Scotland is getting right that Westminster should be keen to copy.
The MSP expense system is far superior to Westminster. Take a look for yourself. They have been doing it like this for years, where expenses are only reimbursed on the actual costs incurred, supported by receipts for everything. Simple and transparent. It’s when others make something look so easy that you realise MPs whinging that it was “the system” that caused them to behave so badly is a bare-faced lie, conveniently created so tey can dodge their real culpability in allowing it to continue unreformed for so long.
The Scottish Parliament consistently sits for longer than the Westminster Parliament every year. Its recesses are always shorter; and though they still have a two month summer recess (which is too long), it is still better than the 2.5 month one that MPs get.
In the Scottish Parliament, control of business is in the hands of a separate committee, which the Scottish government does not control, and all agendas and minutes are put into the public domain. Even better, the final agenda for business that the committee produces has to be approved by a motion in Parliament. In Westminster, none of this happens. It’s all done cloak-and-dagger in “the usual channels” – which are, as Tony Benn said, “the most polluted waterways in Europe”.
The Scottish Parliament has a nice little device whereby petitions are submitted to a Committee which then takes a short investigation on the subject and gets the relevant government department to reply. All done publicly. Westminster does a similar thing, only there is no committee, and the government’s responses are invariably extremely late or inadequate.
Conduct of business in Parliamentary proceedings
Holyrood: Scottish Parliament
The Scottish Parliament is far less arcane, allowing members to refer to each other by name, and without all the usual ostentations that go with Westminster proceedings. MSPs are even allowed to clap, something far more natural than the raucous din of “hear hear” that we hear in Westminster. The Presiding Officer of the Scottish Parliament also has much more powers to keep contributions brief, but it seems Westminster is at least learning on this score, as it’s one of the things new Speaker John Bercow has concentrated on.
The nonsense of physically going through a corridor to vote is one of Westminster’s most ridiculous traditions. A single vote takes between 10 to 15 minutes. Meanwhile, Holyrood dispensed with four votes in the space on five minutes the other day on the al-Megrahi affair. This actually means Holyrood takes more votes on issues, since many things are not voted on in Westminster merely to reduce the number of times they have to go through their rigmarole. While some may say the Westminster traditions should be preserved, I am not one of them.
Being a building designed for the modern era, Holyrood is far more publicly accessible as it has been designed to be a public building… unlike Westminster which was, primarily, a royal Palace which has been retrofitted to try to accommodate democracy. Hence why it is such a rabbit warren. Holyrood is far better equipped to deal with the public getting involved, with a better and (I think) larger public gallery. Westminster is constantly undergoing refurbishment to try to make the place more hospitable to visitors; the costs of which are astronomical and always rising. Something to do with being in a royal Palace, I think…
Different political culture
My final point stems from the fact that Holyrood has always been elected by a form of proportional representation, meaning governments either have to be coalitions or minority administrations. This has created a completely different ethos where the parties must work together on their objectives. There seems to be a lot less bad faith. For instance, in the Westminster climate, one would have thought that if the Tories had backed a Labour minority administration then the third party (in this case the Liberal Democrats) would get so uppity about the whole thing that they would refuse to engage on princple.
Meanwhile, the Scottish Tories backed the SNP’s budget, allowing it to pass… but the other parties haven’t thrown their toys out the pram in disgust. Instead, Labour intend to work with the SNP on alcohol policy in this parliamentary session, and until recently the Lib Dems had been trying to find a compromise on local income tax.
At Westminster, majority rule is the order of the day. Government defeats are extremely rare and always seen as a political earthquake, even though they shouldn’t be. The SNP administration is used to such defeats, but they are symbolic and only cause trouble on a PR level. But the fact that they are in a minority and could be toppled if they piss enough people off at any moment forces them to play nicely. Not like Labour in Westminster. And not like the Tories will be when they come to power.
Holyrood isn’t perfect – but it sure as hell has looked across the border for an example of how not to run a Parliament. It’s learned from that, and adapted much of its system to learn from their mistakes. These are the benefits of being able to start again from scratch. And where there are weaknesses, many of them are caused by having insufficient powers to legislate or because they are beyond their remit.
Westminster, on the other hand, is a monster that various MPs have tried to tame and got nowhere, simply because it doesn’t suit the government of the day to be more open and have less control of the agenda. There are too many vested interests, and too many people hiding behind the defence of “tradition” to preserve an institution that is still stuck in the 19th century.
The solution? My answer is too radical and will never happen. A constitutional convention to make us start again from first principles. And why does Parliament even need to be in London anyway?
A liberal can but dream…