Scottish Parliament: How voters could be given more power over who is elected as an MSP – Joyce McMillan

Two weeks have passed since the Scottish National Party and the Scottish Green Party announced their plans for a governing partnership, in the new Scottish parliament elected in May.

Voters, rather than parties, could be given the power to decide who comes top of the regional lists in Scottish Parliament elections (Picture: Robert Perry)
Voters, rather than parties, could be given the power to decide who comes top of the regional lists in Scottish Parliament elections (Picture: Robert Perry)

So far, the sky has not fallen, nor do most voters seem unduly concerned about a development which essentially only formalises a long-standing co-operative relationship between the parliament’s two parties of independence.

In some quarters, though, the coming of the SNP/Green deal has been greeted with cries of rage and dismay out of all proportion to the change it represents. Andrew Neil of GB News, for example, took to the pages of the Daily Mail to dismiss the Greens as “eco-zealot Marxists”, declaring that they might well wreck Scotland’s economic future; and his was not a lone voice on the British political right.

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The economic policies agreed by the SNP and Greens will of course be the subject of continuing debate over the next few months, in the run-up to the vital Cop26 conference in Glasgow in November.

There is one strand of criticism of the deal, though, that needs immediate rebuttal for the insular nonsense it is; and that is the contention that the Scottish Parliament electoral system which makes the SNP/Green deal possible is in some way what Neil called “absurd”; as in abnormal, weird, and designed to deprive the Scottish people of their democratic rights.

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Now I should declare an interest in the Scottish Parliament electoral system as it presently stands, in that I chaired the Scottish Constitutional Convention side-committee which, in the mid-1990s, advised the convention on the detail of the electoral system that would eventually be used.

The convention as a whole – which at the time represented the Labour, Liberal Democrat and Green parties, most of Scotland’s local authorities, the Scottish TUC, and a huge range of civic groups from churches to women’s community organisations – had already given a firm steer that some kind of additional member system would probably suit Scotland best.

It was considered unthinkable that the parliament would be elected by the first-past-the-post system, which by the 1990s had visited on Scotland almost two decades of radical Thatcherism which had never been supported by anything like a majority of UK voters, never mind Scottish ones.

On the other hand, given the unfamiliarity of proportional voting systems in most of the UK, it was felt that an immediate shift to a Single Transferable Vote system in large multi-member constituencies would not find widespread acceptance, particularly in the Labour Party.

It therefore seemed reasonable for the convention to recommend a system which combined the continued election of constituency MSP’s with a top-up mechanism to ensure a parliament that broadly represents the party preferences of voters in each region, as expressed in a second vote; it was a system which had excellent credentials, having been used to elect the German Bundestag since 1945, and in various versions was widely used internationally.

And despite the inevitable complexity of the counting system that allocates these top-up seats, the results in terms of the make-up of the Scottish Parliament have been fairly impressive over the last 22 years, accurately reflecting the broad balance of political opinion in Scotland in a way rarely if ever achieved in the House of Commons.

In 1997, the plan for the Scottish Parliament as drawn up by the convention carried the support of a huge range of civic organisations who backed the principle of Scottish self-government, and of two political parties which, in the general election of 1992, commanded more than 52 per cent of votes in Scotland. And in the devolution referendum of September 1997, the plan was endorsed by a historic majority of 74 per cent of those who voted.

If its democratic credentials are outstanding, though, the Scottish devolution settlement, including the electoral system, are certainly capable of improvement. Even at the time, the committee I chaired was aware that, like all electoral systems, AMS had imperfections; in this case, the power it gave political parties to determine which candidates should head their lists, and thereby win a decent chance of election.

We were also aware that under some versions of AMS (or MMP, as it is known internationally), voters are able to determine the order of the list proposed by the party they support; and it was our view that such an improvement to the Scottish Parliament electoral system might well be considered in future, once voters had become more accustomed to the PR system; a change for which Scotland is now probably more than ready.

It is difficult, of course, to launch a rational campaign for an improvement in Scotland’s democratic settlement at a time when the very existence of the Parliament sometimes seems under siege; and when post-Brexit UK politics seems ever more hostile to any constitutional change not dictated by, and controlled from, Westminster.

In or out of the Union, though, Scotland will no doubt one day return to the question of how it wants to elect its parliament, and how the current system might be improved.

On that convention committee, back in the mid 1990s, I sat alongside some astonishing people, strong supporters of Scottish home rule who cared deeply about the quality of democracy Scotland would enjoy in the 21st century.

And my best hope is that when change comes to the Scottish Parliament, their work – and the profound political values they brought to it – will not be entirely forgotten or dismissed.

Wisdom, compassion, justice, integrity, say the words engraved on the head of the mace of the Parliament, 22 years ago. At the time, many of us meant every word, when we framed our aspirations for the governance of Scotland; and I believe a majority of Scotland’s people mean it still, two turbulent decades on.

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