Throwing Stones in Crumbling Legislatures…

... is Inadvisable

Folk in the Scottish Politics bubble this weekend can’t have missed a sudden and – frankly – unwelcome addition to the discourse: “Scotland is a one party state.” Excuse me? Scotland has five major parties, a minority Scottish government, and the overall UK government is a majority of a different single party. The USSR we are not.

We’ve seen this largely coming from commentators and indeed parliamentarians from elsewhere in the UK. In response, journalists, academics, and politicians from across the spectrum in Scotland have been rolling their eyes and gnashing their teeth. I joined that chorus with a moderately successful (by BBS standards!) rant-thread addressing the issue.

It’s not that Scottish politics isn’t in a rather fraught and quite unpleasant place right now. I think most Scots, regardless of constitutional or partisan persuasion, would agree things aren’t great. Rather, the core of my frustration with critiques of Scottish democracy coming from outwith Scotland is that the UK as a whole is a democratic embarrassment, and these people largely don’t care.

These are politicians whose parties have spent decades deliberately maintaining antiquated and unfair electoral mechanisms out of pure self interest. These are commentators who’ve said nary a peep about the myriad democratic shortcomings in the UK at any point in the past. The UK’s democratic infrastructure is about as sound as the Palace that birthed it – at risk of crumbling into the Thames, or bursting into flames, at any moment. But suddenly, it’s open season on the Scottish bits of this flawed system? Gies peace.

The UK's Ailing Democracy

When I talk about the UK being a democratic embarrassment, I mean that the fundamentals of our system haven’t changed since universal adult suffrage in 1928. We have had some changes and additions since then of course. Some of those, like Devolution, have been transformational. Others, like limiting the number of hereditary peers, have been sticking plasters. None of them have truly challenged the core of our system – ultimate parliamentary supremacy of Westminster, with a two-party duopoly on power. A non-exhaustive list of democratic failings in the UK includes:

  • A hereditary monarch as head of state
  • An unelected upper chamber (some hereditary, some clergy, all seats for life)
  • The deeply unfair First Past the Post voting system
  • No codified constitution clearly delimiting powers of government and rights of people
  • Deposits as a financial barrier to standing for election
  • Parties reliant on private (read: wealthy) donors

None of these are unique to the UK. Spain and Denmark, for example, are also monarchies. Ireland’s upper chamber isn’t directly elected, though at least seats aren’t for life. Lithuania requires deposits for some aspects of its elections. What is unique is that the UK suffers from all of these afflictions at the same time. You’d be lucky to find more than a handful of European democracies that suffer from even half of them at once.

There are specific worries around the functioning of Holyrood that are entirely legitimate. Many of the Scots reacting negatively to the charges of Scotland being a “one party state” have themselves been raising those concerns for years, in far less dramatically nonsensical terms. A lot of this revolves around the scrutiny functions of Holyrood.

And looking below both parliaments, local democracy in the UK as a whole is in a parlous state, neither local nor truly government. The average population of a local government unit in the UK is 163,600 people. In Denmark, home to the most populous local government areas in Europe outside of the UK and Ireland, that average is around 59,200. Decades of centralisation to both Westminster and Devolved Legislatures have stripped local governments of powers, especially over revenues, and turned them into mere conveyor belts for national government policy.

This Has to Change...

For anyone genuinely concerned about the state of democracy, either in Scotland or in the UK as a whole, we need to change at least some of these – and soon. With the ever-present BBS caveat that I’m an interested amateur nerd and not an academic, I have possible answers to most of these.

Head of State

Okay for this one, I included it in the list mostly out of completeness. Monarchy is fundamentally undemocratic, but I know to pick my battles. Of all the issues above this is the least pressing, as the Monarch is largely ceremonial – and also quite popular. I’d prefer a ceremonial president in the vein of Ireland, but this isn’t top of the agenda.

Westminster's Upper Chamber

The ideal here would be a directly-elected chamber – quite possibly along the “Nations and Regions” model some parties have been calling for. If that’s not achievable, an indirectly-elected chamber would still work if it was refreshed regularly enough. I wrote a little thread about this on Twitter last year, taking the 2012 proposals for reform as my starting point.

This would keep some appointed seats and some clergy, but 80% of seats would be filled on the basis of the most recent Devolved elections in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland, and the sum of Local Government elections in England. Most of this chamber would therefore be democratically responsive in some sense, and have some degree of refresh every five years at most.

Electoral Reform

This is where, hands down, England fares the absolute worst. Both Scotland and Northern Ireland use systems of Proportional Representation for their Devolved and Local elections. Wales uses PR for Devolved and has recently given the option to councils to decide individually whether to use a form of PR for Locals. In England, only the London Assembly is elected via PR, and it is a scrutiny rather than governing body.

Even in Scotland though, the form of PR we use isn’t ideal. For Holyrood especially, the Additional Member System (AMS) is actually relatively easy to win a majority in. That helps support the existence of a dominant party, which Scotland has had a succession of both before and after Devolution. Wales is actually even worse on this front, with a less proportional version of the same system.

I’ve written a comprehensive briefing on an fully proportional voting system that could be used at all levels of election – bearing in mind it’s good to be consistent rather than use a different system for every vote. Even if we didn’t go for this, AMS or STV at UK level would be a big help. Reforming AMS in Scotland such that there’s a better balance between constituency and list seats, and the latter linked more closely to the national vote share, would also be a step forward.

Codified Constitution

Write one. Okay, that’s easier said than done, but honestly, just write one! Get a combination of legal boffins, directly (and proportionally) elected party delegates, and citizen representatives together. Hash out a constitution. Put it to a vote of the people.

There should also be individual constitutions for the Devolved nations too. Federal countries follow this model of having both National and State level constitutions, as does Spain, the closest structural parallel to the UK, which has “Statues of Autonomy” for its nations and regions.

Deposits and Ballot Access

Abolish them, as the Electoral Commission recommend. In their place, implement a system where parties (or Independent candidates) simply need to demonstrate a small amount of public support to stand for election. If you can’t convince a small number of voters you should be on the ballot, well obviously you’re not going to be elected anyway, are you? I’ve got a full briefing on this one too.

Public Funding for Parties

I know, I know, voters will hate this one, but it’s almost universal in Europe. Parties being able to cover their basic operational costs without reliance on wealthy donors is fundamentally a good thing. It also promotes public accountability, as the level of funding relates to the level of voter support. If you don’t want to give £1 of your tax a year to a party, don’t vote for it. Want more detail? There’s a briefing for it.

Holyrood Scrutiny

Part of the problem with scrutiny in Holyrood is that Committees lack independence. One way to help get around that, as has been quite successful at Westminster, is for parliament as a whole to elect Committee Convenors. The total number of Convenorships per party would still be clearly set, and perhaps even which committees they convene, but the precise convenor would not be in that party’s sole power.

Another scrutiny issue is that given Holyrood has accumulated many more powers since it was set up in 1999, it doesn’t actually have enough MSPs to do the committee scrutiny role justice. Unpopular though it may be, Holyrood is due more seats. A simple solution that also partly helps reduce the chance of a majority government would be to add two more regional MSPs to each region, giving us 145 MSPs. We could even bump it up to three, and thus 153 total, if felt necessary.

Local Government

Local government needs to truly live up to both parts of that title, by reversing decades of geographic and competency centralisation. Smaller City, Burgh and District Councils comparable to other European countries should be put into place. There isn’t an ideal size here, but a specific Scottish example using 20,000 as a reasonable minimum population is given in my New Municipalism project. Recognising that some things should be dealt with more locally than parliament but less locally than those municipalities would also necessitate a regional or county level in most places.

These smaller units then need more comprehensive powers, especially over revenues. The basics of these powers and the right to their own revenues should be enshrined in the constitution(s). No Scottish Government should ever again, for example, be able to try to enforce a nationwide Council Tax freeze by threatening to withhold money.

... So Change It

There should be plenty of food for though there for everyone. Even if you don’t instinctively support all (or any) of these, sit down and really think them through. Where I’ve given briefings or other project links, follow those, and digest them. 

And once you’ve done that, start agitating. Stop tweeting nonsense about Scotland being a one party state, and start advocating for electoral reform. Stop clutching your pearls at the lack of scrutiny at Holyrood and push candidates, and then MSPs, to take the opportunity of a new term to breathe new life into Committees.

Above all, recognise that fortunate as we all are that the UK is a democracy, it’s a crap one. We all deserve better than this, and we can have better than this if we demand it. These aren’t Independence versus Union nor Brexit versus Europe issues. These are things we can take action on regardless of constitutional position or partisan preference. But whatever you do, to paraphrase RuPaul, I don’t want to see any f—ing one party state patter.

If you find this or other Ballot Box Scotland output useful and/or interesting, and you can afford to do so, please consider donating to support my work. I love doing this, but it’s a one-man project and takes a lot of time and effort. All donations, no matter how small, are greatly appreciated and extremely helpful.
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