Tavish Scott: One-party rule hurting Holyrood

The Scottish Parliament. Picture: Neil Hanna
The Scottish Parliament. Picture: Neil Hanna
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PARLIAMENT is about politics and power. The bleeding obvious needs restating after a new attempt to suggest that the Scottish Parliament could be improved by tweaking some internal procedures.

When parliament reconvened in 1999, those who worked up the rules of engagement never envisaged majority one-party rule. There was a fear that Donald Dewar might have untrammelled power after the first devolved elections. Coalition saw to that. Since 2011, Scotland has been ruled by a majority Nationalist government. In Holyrood, this meant the imposition of an SNP presiding officer. The only secret and so-called free vote was between Tricia Marwick (SNP) and Christine Grahame (SNP) to become presiding officer. Marwick won. Observers concluded that the SNP leadership wanted one of their own and Grahame did not fit that bill.

The Presiding Officer now proposes that Holyrood committee conveners could be elected by the whole parliament and not appointed by their parties. It is a reasonable idea. But only if parliament was to forget politics on the day of these elections, and that seems unlikely. Currently, parties are allocated conveners in proportion to their seats in parliament. That is a fair principle. Marwick proposes retaining that. A party then chooses a particular MSP to chair a committee. Instead, Marwick wants the entire parliament to vote in each convener. In the current parliament, that would enshrine power in the hands of the SNP whips and in reality, that means Alex Salmond. Nothing happens in parliament without Salmond’s assent. The SNP controls parliamentary business, votes and the timetabling of legislation. That is what one-party rule means. Marwick now proposes that a majority government would in effect appoint conveners of committees, thus enshrining patronage and loyalty. A minority or coalition government might ensure a more open contest.

The other downside to the proposal is the inherent failure of the Holyrood committee system. Holyrood does not have enough members to have separate legislative and select committees as Westminster does. So committees must mix cross-party, impartial inquiries with consideration of new laws. This tends to be highly political, irrespective of the colour of the government. All governments want their own way on legislation and whip the votes accordingly. Marwick has not proposed any reform to this. She has also rightly said that First Minister’s Questions does not work. Backbenchers are frozen out, as the party leaders take up most of the half hour allocated to allow Salmond to provide answers to questions that were not asked. There is one person who can do something about this: the Presiding Officer. She or he controls the format. If the First Minister or a party leader is waffling far from the subject matter, the Presiding Officer can stop them. A former incumbent says the day to get that right is at the first FMQ of a new parliament. Wise words.