On the Parliamentary Accountability of Governments

by Elias Blum

Scots, especially those of us who favour independence, sometimes forget that the (re-)creation of the Scottish Parliament, while it was a unique turning point in Scottish history, was not a as a uniquely Scottish phenomenon, and did not occur in response to uniquely Scottish circumstances.

Devolution was part of a package of reforms that had been maturing for at least two decades, ever since Lord Hailsham’s description of the UK as an ‘elective dictatorship’. There was a growing sense, even in the 1980 and 1990s, that the harsh and unpopular policies which were being imposed upon the UK by Thatcher were facilitated and enabled by a centralised and majoritarian system of government that concentrated too much power in too few hands, without sufficient checks or restraints.

Scottish devolution must therefore be seen not only in the context of parallel devolution to Wales and Northern Ireland, but also as part of a broad (if half-hearted and half-baked) attempt by Tony Blair’s Government to ‘modernise’ the pre-1997 system of government through such monuments of institutional legislation as the Human Rights Act (1998), the Freedom of Information Act (2000), the Political Parties, Elections and Referendums Act (2000), and the Constitutional Reform Act (2005).

When the Scottish Parliament was (re-)established in 1999, a deliberate attempt was made to create a working Parliament that would not simply replicate the raucous ritual confrontations of Westminster. Parliament would be more representative, thanks to proportional representation. The power of the executive over Parliament would be trimmed by the institution of a Parliamentary Bureau to manage Parliament’s order of business. The committees would have an enhanced role, with the right to propose as well as scrutinise legislation. The adoption of fixed parliamentary terms would remove the Damoclean sword of dissolution from above the heads of rebellious backbenchers. The plan was to reject not only rule from Westminster, but also the Westminster way of ruling.

The Scottish Parliament has only partially and intermittently lived up to these expectations. Culture is sticker than institutions and despite institutional reforms the ingrained habits of Westminster politics die hard. The period since 2011, in particular, has been characterised by one-party government and by harsh and bitter partisanship, exacerbated by the wholly negative attitude of the opposition parties to the independence referendum.

This exchange (first 10 minutes or so) from a recent bout of First Minister’s Questions shows ‘Westminster-style’ politics at its worst: a game of argumentative tennis between Nicola Sturgeon and Kezia Dugdale, before a braying crowd of backbenchers:

But there is a new and welcome development: a forum in which the First Minister is scrutinised by the Convenors of all of Parliament’s committees. The theatrical differences are important. Unlike the shouting from the podium that characterises FMQs, this takes place in a committee room, from a seated position, and in a conversational rather than confrontational style.

In terms of holding the First Minister to account and providing a forum for the discussion of key issues, this seems a much more sensible way of proceeding than the farcical exchanges of ‘First Minister’s Questions’. We need more of this: less shouting, brawling, ya-boo politics, and more detailed, sensible, cooperative engagement between the Government and committee convenors.

Why cannot this be a weekly or at least monthly event?