There’s no optimum size but comparisons can be made with both past administrations and similar-sized countries. But whichever way you look at it, Nicola Sturgeon’s latest administration’s big, and I’d argue that’s bad for the democratic process at Holyrood.
Donald Dewar’s, indeed Holyrood’s, first-ever Cabinet had ten Cabinet ministers along with ten junior ministers. Alex Salmond’s first Scottish government saw a name change and six Cabinet Secretaries and 13 ministers. After 2011, the majority government increased to nine Cabinet Secretaries and 12 ministers.
Now the coalition with the Greens sees Nicola Sturgeon’s administration consist of ten Cabinet Secretaries and 17 ministers.
That’s 27 in a Parliament that only has 129 elected members. Once you exclude the Presiding Officer who doesn’t participate and two Deputy Presiding Officers whose involvement’s limited, that only leaves 99 MSPs to challenge the executive and ensure good governance.
Having been in opposition during Dewar’s time at the helm and part of Alex Salmond’s team, I’m persuaded that the optimum number is in the low 20s, even allowing for some additional devolved powers.
If the numbers in government are too small, the workload on some is too great. Wendy Alexander complained, with some hyperbole, but also some basis, of being the ‘minister for everything’ when in charge of industry, transport and higher education. John Swinney’s first term as Finance Secretary with higher education was similarly burdened.
But just as the Cabinet and ministers can’t be overloaded neither should Parliament be overburdened. Committees need to have members but also members with time and ability to hold government to account.
If they’re on committees everywhere, it’s as bad for democracy, as with ministers for everything. There are changes needed to how the Scottish Parliament operates that would enhance it.
Those steps – such as committee conveners being elected by members, not appointed by parties – still require people to be available and have the time to do the roles justice.
By any criteria, the new court of Queen Nic’s too large and that damages the institution in which they serve. And it’s not just that it’s larger than its predecessors by far – it is also greater than comparable countries. Ireland and Norway are nations that those who support independence frequently call for Scotland to emulate, and rightly so.
But consider their parliaments. Norway has a population of 5.4 million and 169 MPs in the Storting yet operates with a Cabinet of 20. Democratic structures may be different with far greater local democracy but it’s also a unicameral Parliament and, more importantly, one that has powers over foreign affairs, defence and full fiscal sovereignty that Holyrood only dreams of. Ireland has 160 TDs in the Dail but operates with 15 Cabinet ministers in Cabinet and 20 other ministers, with a few who also attend but who can’t vote.
Any way you look at it, the Scottish Cabinet is too big. Holyrood needs to hold government to account, not be swamped by ministerial officeholders.
Kenny MacAskill is the Alba Party MP for East Lothian