Scottish independence: MSPs who are also MPs, like Douglas Ross, could help keep the Union together – Alastair Stewart

Douglas Ross, the Scottish Conservative leader, was subject to a fair bit of flack in the last election.

A bridge between parliaments? Douglas Ross, an MP and MSP, meets UK Chancellor Rishi Sunak at Wemyss Bay train station last year (Picture: John Devlin)
A bridge between parliaments? Douglas Ross, an MP and MSP, meets UK Chancellor Rishi Sunak at Wemyss Bay train station last year (Picture: John Devlin)

A recurring critique was his refusal to step down as a serving MP at Westminster if returned to Holyrood, as he was.

And so to our problem. Ross is now serving in two elected roles, as MP for Moray and MSP for Highlands and Islands, with a dual mandate. But is the practice as inherently inappropriate, nay grubby, as some have suggested? Or is that just an extension of the visceral hate some seem to have towards politicians drawing any salary at all?

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Sage and local hero Malcolm Tucker said it best: "People don't like their politicians to be comfortable. They don't like you having expenses, they don't like you being paid, they rather you lived in a f***ing cave.”

But dual mandates are not generally a money tree. There's a salary cap for joint MSP-MPs, meaning an MSP who is also elected to Westminster receives only a partial salary. Alex Salmond was probably the most famous dual-mandate holder, notably while also serving as First Minister between 2007 and 2010. Additional responsibilities bring additional remuneration, but it's rare for leaders and probably why Salmond and Ross stand out.

If something had to change, it might be to reconcile the time constraints of leadership roles, ministerial office and constituency needs. These can make it extremely difficult to maintain a ground-level constituency connection. But, unless there is an absurd disparity, such as an MP having a Westminster constituency wholly removed from their Holyrood one, the practice should be refined but not dismissed.

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Councillors are slightly different: the role is (technically) part-time and seems to ignite less of the public's ire. Some MSPs are also councillors; this is common after elections and particularly when there are significant swings (as happened in the Scottish Conservatives in 2016). But many either step down, instigating a council by-election, or they don't contest the next local election.

The situation is not explosive or corrupt. It's more likely that dual mandates are being conflated with expenses and additional income. The 2009 expenses scandal has left an indelible mark on public life.

'Double jobbing' has become an umbrella term. Stories abound of serving politicians from across the UK making significant sums of money ‘on the side'.

Ruth Davidson accepted – then U-turned on – a £50,000-a-year consultancy role while still sitting as an MSP. Douglas Ross missed parliamentary votes on Universal Credit because he was refereeing a football match. Both decisions were poor ones and of the type that do require tighter guidance.

OpenDemocracy revealed that 237 MPs declared outside earnings that came close to £4.9m over the last year. While legitimate, it's former Prime Ministers who make a lot of money after standing down who are really the source of the perception problem for everyone.

Margaret Thatcher was the first to make large sums for speeches, consultancy roles and global book tours. She also sat in the House of Lords and continued to make regular political interventions. Tony Blair was the first modern premier to unabashedly jump straight into a business career.

David Cameron has largely followed this model, while Theresa May has opted for 'a Thatcher' and makes significant sums for (virtual) speeches while remaining a backbench MP. Gordon Brown and John Major are closer to the 'retired' garden variety of elder statesman.

The feeling that any politician makes a penny from anything close to their time in office feels awkward. That doesn't make it wrong to do so afterwards: the younger the leader, the more likely they are to need a post-political career.

But there's an innately British feeling that public life should mean modestly remunerated service. 'Cashing in' is somehow garish, perhaps too American, and unbecoming.

Dual mandates are unfairly thrown in with this problem. One representative for two comparable constituencies is a bit of a bargain: the infrastructure is there, the offices are there, the staff might be the same.

The representative will know the movers and shakers, the broader local issues, and have a clear grasp of how best to progress solutions. We just don't like it because of a lingering reminder that our politicians need to be paid – and some don't like that, period.

The irony is the current system of professional politicians is a relatively new one. Ministers and prime ministers' salaries have fluctuated for centuries but, for a long time, MPs were not paid. The 1911 Parliament Act gave MPs a yearly subsidy of £400. David Lloyd George thought the number a joke; more an expenses sum than a yearly wage.

Before the beginning of the 20th century, there was an implicit understanding all politicians would be financially independent. The rise of the Labour party saw a change towards meritocracy.

One of the primary reasons the Scottish Parliament came into being was to focus on issues relating to Scotland. This was the argument over the last century.

Pragmatically, dual mandates hold more of a problem because of time and the practice is really quite peculiar to Scotland. Members of the House of Commons are no longer allowed to hold positions in the Welsh Parliament or the Northern Ireland Assembly.

But, given the ongoing constitutional question in Scotland, dual mandates could well be a bridge between institutions that have never felt more at odds with one another.

If federalism is off the table for the foreseeable future, MSPs who are also MPs could be part of the glue that holds the UK together. God knows we need something, anything, right now.

Alastair Stewart is a public affairs consultant and freelance writer. You can read more from Alastair at www.agjstewart.com and follow him on Twitter @agjstewart.

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