AT MARGO MacDonald’s memorial service, Alex Neil gave a memorable eulogy. He recalled that the Conservative Scotland Office minister David Mundell had described Margo as a “one-woman second chamber”.
It was a great description for Margo, who was nothing if not independent of mind and free of spirit. It was also a compliment, because it recognised Margo’s willingness to challenge the Scottish Government.
Sadly, the same cannot be said of her former colleagues in the SNP, whose capacity for original thought seems somewhat limited.
Ever since Alex Salmond delivered his thumping majority in May 2011, there have been complaints about the dominance of the SNP on Holyrood committees and its reluctance to tolerate opinions that do not chime with their party’s view.
The SNP finds it easy to dismiss the complaints as the grumblings of sore losers. But the harsh truth is that the committee system – once trumpeted as the jewel in the crown of Scotland’s parliament – is struggling to hold the executive to account.
To an extent, it can be argued that the structure of Holyrood, designed on the assumption that proportional representation would ensure that Scotland would be governed by a coalition, is flawed and is to blame for a lack of checks and balances.
That, however, would overlook the unwillingness of SNP committee members to challenge the party line.
This week the frustrations of opposition MSPs, who are fed up with their views being trumped by the superior SNP numbers on committees, finally boiled over.
Opposition MSPs claimed that SNP members were trying to whitewash scrutiny of spending decisions relating to Police Scotland.
The SNP was a “cult of obedience and slavishness”, according to Labour MSP Hugh Henry, one of four non-SNP members of the public audit committee to object to the way that SNP members used their numerical advantage to ensure that critical comments were omitted from a committee report. Another Labour member of the committee Ken Macintosh said the government had “a ruthless agenda to suppress dissent”.
Clearly the bold claim at the outset of devolution that the committee system would promote a more consensual style of politics has been shown to be nothing more than a vain hope. One solution being bandied around Holyrood would be to restructure the parliament to make the government more accountable – a suggestion that invariably leads to talk of establishing a second chamber, an unlikely scenario. Another solution would be for more politicians to behave like Margo.