Allan Massie: Westminster wins with quality

Alex Salmond makes a point during FMQs. Picture Ian Rutherford
Alex Salmond makes a point during FMQs. Picture Ian Rutherford
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Team Westminster proved themselves to be more than a match for Team Scotland during the referendum campaign, writes Allan Massie

In the last days of his referendum campaign, Alex Salmond tried to turn it into a contest between Team Scotland and Team Westminster. Dubbing his side “Team Scotland” was a blunder. Like the SNP’s attempt to claim ownership of the Saltire, it irritated vast numbers of Scots who were delighted by the rebuke delivered by Gordon Brown: “It’s not his Scotland, it’s our Scotland, it’s everyone’s Scotland.” This was perhaps the most telling sentence of the whole campaign.

But if Team Scotland played badly. Team Westminster played well, not only from the point of view of the SNP and their assorted allies. You can always raise a cheer these days by sounding off against the House of Commons and the Westminster culture. Nigel Farage is playing the same tune effectively. No doubt he has learned a trick or two from Alex Salmond.

The composition of the present coalition government makes the game easier: rich men, posh boys, Old Etonians – even though there are fewer Etonians in this Cabinet than in any previous Tory one. Attacking the “Westminster elite” plays well in Scotland where so many people are snobs, judging and either praising or condemning people on account of their perceived class, family background, school and university attended, employment history, financial status. One has some sympathy. There are a few Cabinet ministers who are eminently dislikeable, but then that is true of a number of leading figures in all political parties.

There are reasons for the low esteem in which so many hold Westminster. The expenses scandal did politicians there great damage. Fair enough, even though most MPs were playing by the rules then in place, and members of all parties were guilty. In truth the generous expenses system had come into being principally as an alternative to raising MPs’ salaries. This was foolish.

Others deplore the number of professional politicians who have never had a job outside politics or unconnected with politics. There is also some merit in this argument. The Commons could do with having more backbenchers with experience of non-political work. But in truth most politicians anywhere who reach the top have usually been engaged in politics from a young age. Gladstone said a man of 40 might as well start training for the ballet as for the Cabinet. It’s true that for the middle decades of the 20th century almost all politicians had a wider experience. But that was an accident of history and two world wars. I doubt if anyone would suggest a war to give future politicians experience of life away from politics.

In any case, Holyrood in this respect is not very different from Westminster. There are people there too who have been political activists from an early age. Alex Salmond himself was active in politics from his student days. We are always being reminded that he was once an economist with Royal Bank of Scotland. But he wasn’t there very long, and (born in 1955) first became a MP in 1987. His experience of life outside politics was at least as limited as that of any member of the present Westminster Cabinet.

We have a political class here in Scotland too – indeed, it is proportionally larger. There are 129 members of the Scottish Parliament for a nation of just over five million people. There are 650 members of the House of Commons representing more than 60 million and 59 of the 650 come from Scotland. So we have 188 elected politicians. In many respects the Commons works better than Holyrood. It is better at holding the government of the day to account. Government measures are more likely to be defeated there. Its parliamentary committees frequently subject ministers to close scrutiny and criticism. The Holyrood committee system was supposed to do likewise, but, almost invariably, divides on party lines, and so dodges its responsibility. Moreover, Westminster has a second chamber, the Lords, which is independently-minded and regularly amends defective government bills brought up from the Commons. There is no comparable body at Holyrood.

Arguably stricter standards are applied to ministerial conduct by the Commons. I doubt if a health minister there who behaved as the Scottish health minister Alex Neil did in the row over his intervention over Monklands hospital could have survived. In Holyrood he did so through the support of SNP members. True, the Commons often behaves deplorably – Prime Minister’s Questions has been permitted by a weak Speaker to become a bear-garden. But First Minister’s Questions at Holyrood is no better. A weak Presiding Officer there has regularly permitted Alex Salmond to avoid answering questions and make speeches instead.

Many debates in the Commons are desultory, members reading prepared speeches to a thinly peopled House. But they are certainly no better at Holyrood, where speeches are required to be so short that it is well nigh impossible for members to present a reasoned argument. And in big set-piece debates, the Commons still rises to a level of intellectual engagement which is never attained, or even approached, at Holyrood.

Finally, though Westminster may be accused of “remoteness” from the concerns of “ordinary people”, MPs there work longer hours than Holyrood ones and each represents far more constituents who may bring their concerns to them. Indeed the 56 list MSPs here have, strictly speaking, no constituents for whom they are directly responsible.

Westminster has its faults, but it remains a more impressive parliament than any in Europe or the American Congress. There is an elite there, but there is an elite in any polity. One may think there is merit in having a parliament that is closer to the electorate as is the case in small countries. But corruption, cronyism and nepotism are found just as often in small countries as in large ones. Indeed, simply because the governing class, which includes sections of the media, is so much smaller and more closely connected, it is arguable such things are likely to be more common than in large ones such as the UK. Nobody who knows anything about the history and conduct of Fianna Fail in Ireland could doubt this.