Scotland’s democratic deficit

Somebody once said that democracy is a slow process of stumbling to the right decision instead of going straight forward to the wrong one. There’s truth in that. When democracy is working well, governments, held to account by elected legislatures, take sufficient time to get decisions right. Decision-making follows robust and constructive debate, consultation with key experts and the public, and compromise where necessary. The end result is never perfect, but it’s generally better with these steps.

In Scotland, it’s becoming increasingly clear that our democracy isn’t working as it should be. In recent years, Holyrood has passed several poor and damaging laws, pursued against expert advice and the weight of public opinion. Examples include an unworkable Offensive Behaviour at Football Act that was later repealed. A Named Person policy that was struck down by the UK Supreme Court. And a hate crime law that remains unenforced today due to problems of interpretation behind the scenes.

Perhaps the most troubling development in the last decade came in December last year when, after a febrile debate, controversial “gender recognition reforms” were given final assent by MSPs. Critics across the political and philosophical spectrum had warned that this government legislation wasn’t fit for purpose. They had pleaded with Ministers to pause and think again. But concerns were ignored, and sensible amendments by MSPs – including SNP backbenchers – were dismissed.

This outcome has opened the door to a clash with the UK government over legislative competency, and potential legal action by groups concerned about ramifications for women and children. This needn’t have happened. Critics had long warned of significant problems. Scrutiny should have fleshed out concerns and delivered the right outcome. Instead, parliament went “straight forward to the wrong one”. Democracy failed to deliver, and not for the first time.

How we have got to this point in Scotland is an important, and complex, question – too complex to cover in detail here. One obvious factor is the dominance of the SNP. Holyrood was designed to increase the chances of coalition government and see a broader range of people elected through the list system. It wasn’t meant for big majorities. A resurgent SNP vote has given rise to a chamber and committee system in which sheer numbers neuter scrutiny. Frustration has led to entrenched division and political partisanship.

Reform of the parliament, still in its infancy in world terms, could address structural problems and ensure better accountability. And it is interesting to see figures across the political spectrum in Scotland starting to issue calls for change.

At present, a group of individuals are working with James Mitchell, Professor of Public Policy at Edinburgh University, to suggest some solutions. The group includes ex-politicians like Alex Neil, who served as an SNP MSP and Minister over a 20-year period and is passionate about seeing improvements in our democratic life. Mr Neil is one of several figures on the Scottish political left who have aired concerns about parliament’s inner workings.

In a candid interview with the Sunday Mail this month, Mr Neil said: “When the Scottish Parliament was set up, there was a commitment made by all parties that it was going to be much more progressive, so everything wasn’t done by diktat, party leaders, front benches, and government. But these principles have been greatly eroded down the years, not just by the SNP but by all parties, and what we have is a pale shadow of what was envisaged.”

He added: “How the parliament functions is really important.” “We are repeatedly seeing very poor legislation going through the Scottish Parliament because committees don’ t have enough power to scrutinise and influence bills”. Optimists can hope that forthcoming recommendations from Alex Neil and others will be carefully considered.

Concern also exists on the political right. Scottish Conservative MSP Donald Cameron has announced that he will seek to lodge a member’s bill focusing on reform of the Scottish Parliament. The MSP has said the “ability of the Scottish Parliament to robustly hold the executive to account has been found wanting” and described a “pressing need for meaningful reform”.

Next year will be the 25th anniversary of Holyrood – something Mr Cameron sees as an opportunity for a political MOT. He is seeking input from MSPs and external stakeholders on the strengths and weaknesses of the parliamentary system in Scotland, to inform eventual legislation that “improves the function” of Scotland’s Parliament.

Getting a meaningful reform bill passed is a tall order. To be taken forward, it will need to be supported by 18 MSPs in different parties. The government may see it as a criticism of the SNP, and close ranks to oppose it. Whatever happens, the bill can at least provoke debate in parliament, and wider political life in Scotland. Light can be shed on particular areas of concern.

Though important, structural reforms will not be enough to plug Scotland’s democratic deficit. Culture change is required too. Our politics appears to be drifting away from fundamental democratic principles – free expression, free conscience, and religious freedom – which are no longer valued or properly understood. It takes astonishing courage for MSPs to express views outside the mould of Scotland’s chattering classes in a place that should be the seat of national debate. A chilling atmosphere is harming political life.

This atmosphere has been visible in deliberations on contentious pieces of legislation. Most recently, the debate on the Gender Recognition Reform Bill saw targeted selection of witnesses in committee, a denial of dissenting members’ right to speak, and a truly nasty atmosphere in corporate debates. In the wake of a final vote on the bill, the Convener of Holyrood’s civil justice committee decided to Twitter block various critic of the legislation including the Dean of the Faculty of Advocates. This is not a democratic mindset.

Parliament can, and should, be a place where fulsome yet courteous debate takes place, and a place where people with heterodox viewpoints are afforded the right to speak. History shows that respecting and enabling debate leads to societal flourishing. Limited debate and viewpoint diversity has the opposite effect. Over the years, I’ve seen too little generosity towards voices outwith the Holyrood political bubble. And unfair treatment of MSPs who wish to voice concerns.

Changing the stifling culture at Holyrood will require a rediscovery and re-commitment to seminal democratic principles. This may require legislative changes. Individual MSPs can also make a difference by setting an example. I’m glad to count several MSPs and ex-MSPs as friends and have huge respect for people undertaking this tough job. Parliamentarians can know that the public is four-square behind them in wanting to see a better-functioning democracy in Scotland.

We also need to see a true plurality of voices contributing to decision-making in Scotland. Policy decisions are often sorely out-of-touch with the public. Some groups are given disproportionate funding and access to government, whilst other voices are locked out. A wider, and meaningful reach beyond the ‘usual’ voices would lead to decision-making that better reflects Scotland.

Democracy isn’t what it should be in Scotland. Significant work is required to ensure better outcomes for our country in years to come. The fact that people are waking up to the need for change is good. It’s time for change-makers to step up to the plate.

This article was first published in the The Times Scotland edition on 27 January 2023.

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