The Scottish Parliament is failing to deliver and badly needs reform
Nigel Smith died in January 2020. He chaired the pro-devolution Scotland FORward campaign in the 1997 referendum and made a wide range of contributions to public life.
At the time of his death, Nigel was preparing a pamphlet reflecting on two decades of devolution which his friends and family recently published. Its title sums up his views, The Scottish Parliament - partial success: could do better?
Reading it brings back memories of the vibrant debates and many participants who saw devolution as an opportunity to create a balanced and more accountable system of government.
Bernard Crick and David Millar, both sadly gone too, produced two editions of a John Wheatley Centre pamphlet Making Scotland’s Parliament Work, which offered bold proposals. It is time to revisit these ideas.
Nigel praised the report of the Consultative Steering Committee, set up to advise on the operation and procedures of the new parliament, as an “outstanding document which reads as well today as it did then”.
He identified the candidate selection processes as the source of many problems. He felt that loyalty was prioritised over talent, excluding some people who might have made a difference.
We can only speculate on the difference that might have been made had a more relaxed attitude been adopted by party selection processes. This raises questions about increasing the size of Holyrood.
More MSPs to take account of increased competences makes sense but only if accompanied by other, far more vital, reforms. A larger parliament of more lobby fodder will make little difference to the imbalanced relationship between parliament and government.
Nigel was also critical of the large number of ministers appointed and advocated reducing the payroll vote, a view shared by Bernard Crick and David Millar, who wanted to cap the number of ministers.
Nonetheless, the Scottish Parliament started off well enough but over time a lack of critical self-awareness led to a misguided sense of superiority in comparisons with the Commons. The common weakness in both systems is a closed and elite executive that dominates the legislature.
The expectation that a more proportional electoral system would help empower the legislature in its relations with the Scottish executive has not proved enough.
The key to change must lie in empowering, not only expanding, parliament. This was well understood by Bernard Crick and David Millar, who together had unparalleled experience and expertise in these matters.
They focused on the need for powerful committees which should be able to propose legislation as well as scrutinise government legislation. They would be sorely disappointed to see what has happened.
An early challenge came with two parliamentary committee enquiries into the SQA crisis when thousands of students received inaccurate or late examination results. As education policy expert Lindsay Paterson noted, that the committees adopted a constructive tone but the enquiries highlighted the need for “much expanded specialist staff” for committees. This would cost money but was “one of the necessary prices of an effective democracy”.
Many commentators have suggested that Holyrood, including its committees, has become more partisan over the years. There is some evidence that the committees are capable of operating effectively within resource constraints.
What is not in doubt is that increased devolved powers over the last two decades have further imbalanced the relationship between the parliament and government. This suits the governing party of whichever party but it also creates a major problem in terms of accountability.
The recent shockingly poor Scottish Government paper on "renewing democracy" should have been an opportunity to address democratic deficiencies but was a crass partisan polemic. But it reminds us that it will be difficult to reform our institutions so long as governing parties oppose change.
How do you get reform when it is not in the interests of those with the power to make or block reform? Perhaps the lesson lies in the establishment of devolution. Devolution came about when a party came to office experiencing the frustrations of years of opposition, committed to reform and acting promptly – before the temptations of hoarding power took its grip.
Reform will likely require a change of government or at least first minister, though perhaps Nicola Sturgeon will surprise us.
As Nigel Smith argued, “we blew the opportunity” at the start, though few realised it at the time. Drawing on his experience managing an engineering company, he argued that it is far easier to establish the founding culture of a new organisation than reform an existing culture.
There’s ample evidence that this applies to political institutions. Similar challenges exist at Westminster. The expenses scandal led to reforms, not least because Gordon Brown as Prime Minister gave support.
Hannah White, one of the leading authorities on Westminster, argued in her recent book Held in Contempt that crises are needed before change happens. Do we need to wait for a crisis before we reform Holyrood?