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by Professor James Mitchell
27 February 2021
Comment: We need institutional reform to live up to the original ideals of the Scottish parliament

Alex Salmond appearing before the committee. Picture: PA

Comment: We need institutional reform to live up to the original ideals of the Scottish parliament


I have no doubt that there will be further discussion around this issue in due course, in the fullness of time, and I will welcome that. But that time is not now.

Alex Salmond after being acquitted of criminal charges at the High Court in March 2020.

When he left the High Court back in March 2020, Alex Salmond made clear he would re-visit the issues which had been over-shadowing his life. 

He finally got his chance to speak when he gave evidence before the Holyrood committee on Friday. 

It has been interesting to contrast what he actually thinks with what others, including if not especially his critics, purport are his views.

Many people will comment on the specifics of the evidence session and his spoken and written evidence will require careful consideration not only by the committee but, one imagines, other authorities too. 

This blog focuses on the processes and issues of good governance.  What does it tell us about the health of Scottish democracy?

A key test has been how the parliamentary committee investigating the ‘actions of the First Minister, Scottish Government officials and special advisers in dealing with complaints about Alex Salmond’ conducts itself. 

It has not helped that an election is imminent, but the choice of some members was wrong. 

Ideally, committee members engaged in scrutinising government ought to leave partisanship behind but that is always challenging and never more so when very close to an election. 

But some members of the committee behaved in a hyper-partisan manner.  Too often questions strayed far from the remit. Some members seemed unaware of the committee’s remit or, let’s be honest, knew only too well and set out to avoid that focus. 

At times it was like watching a cheap court room drama in which the judge reminds the lawyer to keep to the issue at hand.

Alex Cole Hamilton’s over-excitability was on full show.  He calmed down eventually but was initially like a kid fed too many sweets with additives. 

He personifies the antithesis of consensual politics with which Liberal Democrats are often associated.  However poor and incoherent his performance, though, he did appear to calm down as proceedings progressed - it was the SNP MSPs who proved most hopelessly partisan. 

They were poor even in their own terms, coming across as if simply reading prepared questions and often unable to follow up on responses from the former First Minister.  

The pretence that Salmond failed to provide evidence but only made assertions suggests either SNP MSPs had failed to do their homework or were acting in the party interest. 

Andy Wightman looked uncomfortable but did a reasonable job, as expected from one of Holyrood’s most thoughtful and reasonable members since inception.

Two MSPs emerged well from the session. In each case, it helped that party interest happily coincided with their proper committee role. 

Jackie Baillie was effective, concise and capable of thinking and responding quickly with good follow-ups.  Describing Baillie as ‘Salmond’s spokewoman’ in the Chamber testifies to the First Minister’s awareness of the danger she faces when confronted by Dumbarton’s MSP. 

This has been part of the binary adversarial modus operandi in the Sturgeon camp.  Baillie asks awkward question ergo she is ‘chief spokesperson for Alex Salmond’.  Baillie was operating as we would expect an effective politician charged with scrutinising government.

Murdo Fraser used his legal skills to good use.  It is difficult to imagine that the absence of the other members would have resulted in any great loss to the committee. 

Indeed, when the First Minister appears, these two MSPs will be key to the serious examination of the committee’s agenda unless the others have a Damascene conversion to the parliament’s founding principles.

This leads us to the wider implications.  A key objective in the long years campaigning for a Scottish Parliament was to create a different kind of politics with institutions that would operate very differently from Westminster. 

The Scottish parliament was conceived in contradistinction to Westminster.  In fact, it was more often not so much the Westminster model but a caricature of the Westminster model. 

Elsewhere I have argued that this ‘negative template’ informed much of the thinking, ambition and idealism.  Henry McLeish did a good job chairing the cross-party Consultative Steering Group that produced a report setting out four principles:

  • Power sharing between people, Parliament and Government
  • Accountability
  • Openness and transparency
  • Equality

The intention was to abandon the ‘Westminster model’ in which the legislature was dominated by the executive, where there was insufficient executive accountability and open government was absent.  Committees would be powerful and effective. 

It has become clear, well before this episode but abundantly so now, that Holyrood has not lived up to its ideals. 

Opposition politicians claim this has arisen since the SNP came to power but in truth it goes back to the very early days of the parliament. 

This does not mean that devolution has failed.  It has had remarkable achievements and is now part of the furniture of Scottish life with only a tiny fringe who want it abolished. Indeed, its establishment makes it sufficiently robust for robust criticism.

Ironically, SNP MSPs appear to have embraced the Westminster caricature in adversarial binary politics, with backbenchers operating as lobby fodder for the government. 

The SNP now appears to want to get away from Westminster only to recreate a Scottish version. That is far from what its founders sought. The aims of those many SNP figures involved in its early years that I interviewed over the years was of a very different kind of politics and polity. 

It appeared at one point during Alex Salmond’s session that one of the SNP MSPs did not support extending parliamentary privilege. That was a jaw-dropping moment for anyone familiar with the history of the self-government movement. 

There have been exceptions across all parties. But there needs to be thought as to how we encourage and incentivise more independent-minded backbenchers common in the Commons.

Scottish parliamentary committees have been poor in comparison with those in the Commons.  Of course, partisanship is evident in Commons’ committees but there is also more independence, more willingness to engage productively and critically. 

We could learn much from Westminster.  It is not that Holyrood has become a carbon copy of Westminster.  It is in danger of becoming a carbon copy of the caricature of Westminster.

Another feature that has become all too evident and undermines claims that our politics is superior to Westminster politics arises from the dominance of hyper-adversarial nature of politics. 

Critics of the Westminster system had hoped the adversarial style – symbolised by the mythical two sword-lengths apart chamber – must be disappointed. 

There is, of course, nothing wrong with strongly held views expressed vigorously but sensitivity and nuance are necessary. 

The dream of a more consensual political culture – not the naïve idea of everyone agreeing but conducting politics in a mature respectful manner, avoiding exaggerating and manufacturing disagreements – has not been realised.  Alex Salmond shares responsibility for that failure but we need to consider why this failure has happened and what can be done to change it.

This business should result in a review of our system of government.  We have spent much time and effort discussing and debating devolved competences, relations with government in London and whether Scotland should be independent. 

Far too little attention has been spent on the intra-Scottish constitution. The Scottish Government has hoarded power, not shared it with parliament and the people.  It has centralised power. 

Holyrood has been hyper-partisan and hyper-adversarial.  Its committees have not performed as hoped. If we are to be different from Westminster, we need to be clear why and in what way.  We also need to acknowledge and learn from Westminster where appropriate. 

We might consider how we can reverse centralisation and entrench the rights of local government.  We need to explore strengthening parliamentary privilege.  We must look at the committee system.  We might go wider and be more ambitious and look separation of powers. 

Alex Salmond argued that it was not the institutions but the people in them that were at fault and indeed provided ample evidence that there is a problem. 

Karl Popper, one of the twentieth century’s great philosophers, compared institutions to fortresses, "They must be well designed and properly manned [sic.]".  The sexist language from 1957 is inappropriate but otherwise the thinking is correct. 

We cannot expect that changes in personnel, much as this may be necessary, is enough.  We need institutional reform to live up to the Parliament’s original ideals.

Read the most recent article written by Professor James Mitchell - Family Feud: The weird coalition that is Alba

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