Parliamentary democracy and the art of the expected

Political Parties, Scottish Policy, UK Policy Feb 02, 2012 Add a comment

Sometimes it really is a bit galling to hear Westminster politicians criticising the level of scrutiny at Holyrood – and today is one of those days…

Anyone surprised that the Tories just steamrollered the Welfare Bill through with minimal concessions to critics? Is anyone even surprised the Lib Dems simply went along with it? And if so, why? Haven’t you been told that Westminster is the greatest democracy invented? It has for years been common to hear people from ‘those other places’ to criticise the Scottish Parliament for being unicameral and therefore lacking in democracy. And of late we have also had to hear pious comments about the corrosive power of majority government in Scotland. We get the disdain of those who seem oblivious to the reality of their own situation.

Yesterday we saw the deep concerns of an entire coalition of different interests groups (from cancer charities to Lords of the Realm) buried beneath what one might generously call another Westminster Punch and Judy show. If anyone was expecting proper scrutiny of a dangerous ideological move on welfare must have ben deeply disappointed. All decisions were made in advance, the revising chamber was ignored like it had never been there and if there was any ‘holding to account’ inside the coalition government then you’d need to look awfully closely to find any signs of it.

Am I expressing dismay myself? Not really, because I would have expected not much difference (although even I thought there might be a few more concessions or a bit more of a sense of Lib Dem unease). Parliaments are forums for the deployment of power and always have been. With its disproportionate voting system and its hermetically sealed customs and traditions, Westminster is a place where power is all that really matters – as we can see in the boorish way Cameron’s current strategy seems to be to bark ‘loser, failure, weak!’ at Milliband on a daily basis. Westminster is for alphas and alphas only.

So to be told that we are a backwards democracy in Scotland because we have no revising chamber to ignore is patronising and lacking in any link to reality. And agree with their politics or not, the idea that the SNP majority administration is somehow any less accountable than the majority Labour-Lib Dem Executives of the first two terms of Parliament could only be held by someone who had never experienced the reality of those first two terms (in which decisions emerged from Cabinet every bit as fully formed and with no more chance of being overturned).

To my mind, it is outcomes that matter and to be detained by process all the time is futile. The politics of Holyrood – now and since devolution – have on almost every occasion better reflected the views of its electorate than has Westminster. This doesn’t mean that there is no case for reform of the Scottish Parliament – there is much in the current Games of Thrones which could be greatly improved. It does mean that the last place we should look for advice is Westminster and its pretence of accountability masking a politics as red in tooth and claw as they come.

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