February 11, 2004
How we Scots vote should be up to us
By Margo MacDonald
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’Äôd 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’Äôs right to impose an electoral system on the
Scottish Parliament. The Scottish Secretary of State, part-time,
isn’Äôt 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’Äôs capital.
But the Scotland Act 1998 isn’Äôt written on tablets of stone . . .
more like on the back of an envelope. Now that we have experience of
running a legislature, we shouldn’Äôt be shy of changing the bits of
the Act which militate against MSPs having to face up to difficult
decisions that’Äôll test their strength of character. Dodging them,
or leaving them to Westminster, stunts the development of the
parliament’Äôs skills and ability.
So responding to the wishes of the people who pay our wages and in
whose name we debate and decide, let’Äôs tell Westminster that
we’Äôll decide on the most sensible, and fair, way of electing MSPs.
That means a small change in the Scotland Act that won’Äôt take much
parliamentary time and about which the public in England won’Äôt
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 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’Äôt 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’Äôs still the big party it was 30
Self-interest and party political advantage will be elements in the
equation if the Scottish Parliament takes responsibility for its own
That’Äôs 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,
Don’Äôt 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’Äôt 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’Äôs 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’ÄôVE been in a complete dither all this week . . . and it wasn’Äôt
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’Äôs 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