Is parliament paralysed by the constitution?

Written by Liam Kirkaldy on 28 March 2017 in Comment

As parliament prepares for a third day of constitutional debate, the dialogue is already weary and ill-tempered while other issues are ignored, writes Liam Kirkaldy 

MSPs were mid-flow in the chamber as news broke of the attack on Westminster. The news spread around the benches until the decision was made, eventually, to suspend proceedings. By that point, the First Minister, Presiding Officer and Justice Secretary had already left the chamber, along with quite a few backbenchers.

After all the complaints about parliament devoting two days to debating a second independence referendum, in the circumstances that led to it few would complain about the debate ending up stretching into a third.

The debate had hardly been illuminating up until that point. In fact, there had been a moment, towards the end of the first day, when even Nicola Sturgeon looked like she didn’t want to be there.


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It was a few hours in and Labour MSP Neil Findlay was grandstanding, demanding the First Minister take to her feet and explain why she is so keen for the Scottish Parliament’s will be respected on a referendum, when she was happy to ignore votes on other topics.

“Where was that great champion of parliamentary democracy when the parliament defeated her government’s policies on fracking, NHS cuts, Highlands and Islands Enterprise, council funding, the Offensive Behaviour at Football and Threatening Communications (Scotland) Act 2012, failing education policy and local government cuts?” he asked.

Sturgeon looked down, chewing on the leg of her glasses and shaking her head. She did not respond.

And the FM was certainly not the only one to appear wearied by the decision to allocate so much time to the debate, with most commentators approaching the matter like someone trying to convince a child to pull off a plaster. There are some things it is better to get over with quickly.

After all, everyone knew what the outcome would be, regardless of the ill-tempered rhetoric to dominate proceedings. It all felt a bit too rehearsed, rehashed, reheated. The SNP argued Scotland should be given a choice – which could justify having referendums every year. The Tories argued another referendum should be opposed because it would cause division, which could justify banning politics altogether.

And yet the Scottish Parliament has now gone over a year without passing a law, and it is hard to escape the feeling that the chamber continues to be paralysed by the constitution.

Tory MSP Donald Cameron made a similar point in the debate, reminding the chamber that in his maiden speech he had suggested this “would be the first generation of MSPs that would ‘not necessarily be defined’ by the constitution”.

He added: “Three weeks later, Brexit happened, and I have been regretting those words ever since.”

Of course, some would suggest Cameron should look to his own party – and his name-sake and former UK leader – if he wants to point fingers over the way the constitution has dominated the agenda, but the point stands.

In fact, with so much time being devoted to the independence debate – despite it being a foregone conclusion – the Scottish Government has apparently felt compelled to squeeze four ministerial statements into the last afternoon before Parliament heads off for recess.

The decision means the statements – covering unconventional oil and gas (ie fracking), the government’s Mental Health Strategy, transvaginal mesh implants and the Enterprise and Skills Review – will be made public in the final moments before MSPs disappear for two weeks, and will be left unscrutinised.

As Mike Rumbles put it: “All of these statements are incredibly important and people will be suspicious that bundling them together will result in a tsunami of bad news.”

And so the list of the issues left ignored will continue to grow.

 

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