How we Scots vote should be up to us

By Margo MacDonald
Published February 11th 2004 in The Scotsman
Do we need a review of how the members of the Scottish Parliament are elected? Yes. Should we have a common system for electing councillors, MPs, MEPs and MSPs? Yes. Do we need a Westminster MP to organise it, and Westminster to decide on changes to our electoral system? No.

According to a credible survey of Scottish public opinion published last week, Scots think their parliament should have more power. It hardly seems likely, therefore, that they’d think Westminster the most suitable body to decide matters impacting directly on whether MSPs are masters, and mistresses, in their own house.

MSPs of all parties - and of none - should kick up merry hell over Alistair Darling’s right to impose an electoral system on the Scottish Parliament. The Scottish Secretary of State, part-time, isn’t a bad bloke, and he does have the legal right under the Scotland Act 1998 to call the shots over this, and other policy areas which most Scots take for granted as being the responsibility of MSPs sitting in Scotland’s capital.

But the Scotland Act 1998 isn’t written on tablets of stone . . . more like on the back of an envelope. Now that we have experience of running a legislature, we shouldn’t be shy of changing the bits of the Act which militate against MSPs having to face up to difficult decisions that’ll test their strength of character. Dodging them, or leaving them to Westminster, stunts the development of the parliament’s skills and ability.

So responding to the wishes of the people who pay our wages and in whose name we debate and decide, let’s tell Westminster that we’ll decide on the most sensible, and fair, way of electing MSPs. That means a small change in the Scotland Act that won’t take much parliamentary time and about which the public in England won’t care a jot.

This, of course, will cause a row as big as a fight in the Scottish Parliament. The Labour Party is split on the best way to elect a parliament, or keep themselves in power. The Tories are keeping an open mind on which system they prefer until after they have more evidence of the strength of the Tory revival north of the Border.

The Liberal Democrats, bless their hearts, have probably been in favour of proportional representation ever since Lloyd George was moved off centre-stage and the Liberals became a very small party of the centre.

The Greens, SNP and SSP all favour PR, with slight variations. The Greens and the SSP want to have bigger, multi-member constituencies, with about seven MSPs elected in a similar fashion to the present list. That could be done without increasing the total number of MSPs and gives smaller parties, and independents such as Dennis Canavan and me, a fairer chance of election.

As in a number of other hot topics, the SNP, which has believed in PR for about 30 years, can’t make up its mind. Whether it backs a system favouring big parties, or one that gives the widest possible representation of views, will probably depend on whether it continues to fool itself that it’s still the big party it was 30 years ago.

Self-interest and party political advantage will be elements in the equation if the Scottish Parliament takes responsibility for its own democratic development.

That’s why we must tackle the business of a fair, and understandable, system of elections . . . we must learn to live with, and sometimes triumph over, the narrow and mean-mindedness that are every bit as much a part of democratic politics as radical, bold altruism.

Don’t imagine that if we leave it to Westminster, Scots MPs will put aside their party and personal interests for the better-running of a parliament for which voters don’t hold them responsible, and over which the unionist parties want ultimate power. The carve-up of seats will reflect the interests of the Labour Party, and will be about power, not proportionality.

If the Scottish Parliament asserts its moral right to elect its members by a method of its own choosing, it’s likely Labour would still emerge as the party with the best chance of forming the Executive and bagging the shiny cars.

But in arriving at that point, the Scottish Parliament would have grown immeasurably and Scots would have seen power exercised by the parliament they say should have more of it.

Hard time over Porridge issue

I’VE been in a complete dither all this week . . . and it wasn’t about whether the Fraser Inquiry is getting to the nitty-gritty of who boobed and bumbled over the Holyrood Parliament building project, or about whether Tony Blair was a fool or a knave over WMD.

My angst has been over whether to vote for Del Boy, Sir Humphrey or Fletcher in the BBC’s greatest-ever sitcom series.

I wonder if, in the midst of all its troubles, and the self-importance of some of its grandees, the BBC realises that this competition is the best way to remind everyone why it is still a great broadcaster.