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24 January 2000

Democracy is an expensive luxury

New Statesman Scotland - Devolution has left us with so many representatives that it's hard

By Tom Brown

Perverse though it may seem, Scotland is suffering from a surfeit of democracy. Every Scot has no fewer than, count ’em, SEVENTEEN elected representatives at his or her beck and call. They should be the best-served, most pampered and utterly contented constituents in Britain, if not Europe, if not the democratic world.

Strange, then, that Scots seem sadly unaware of their privileged status. But they are aware that, although there are more politicians than ever living off the public purse, nothing much has changed in their own lives. It seems to be a case of more doing less. Every Scot can now call on one local councillor, one Westminster MP, one directly elected, first-past-the-post MSP, seven PR-elected list MSPs on a regional basis and seven similarly elected MEPs on a national basis.

Although the powers of councils and the three parliaments are supposed to be clearly defined, those who do approach their representatives do not understand the difference.

MPs are still being consulted on housing, which is either a council or Scottish Parliament matter; MSPs are being asked to take up complaints about social security, which should be reserved for Westminster; and no one, except farmers and fishermen, seems to know what an MEP is for.

A dozen members of the Scottish Parliament still hold Westminster seats, but they will not give up their dual membership until the general election. The Plaid Cymru MP, Cynog Dafis, is resigning his Westminster seat to concentrate on the Welsh Assembly, but such is the uncertainty in Scottish politics that no party – not even the Scottish National Party – is confident enough to risk triggering a mid-term mini-election.

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A reduction in Scotland’s representation at Westminster is now inevitable. Devolution has robbed Scottish MPs of a significant part of their role, Scottish question time in the Commons has been halved to a mere 30 minutes a month, and the Westminster members appear to have dropped off the radar screen of public perception.

Not surprisingly, moves will be made during the next Westminster parliament to reduce the Scottish representation from 73 to around 50 MPs.

The threat of redundancy has triggered a turf-war mentality, with MPs jealous- ly guarding their territory and being openly antagonistic to the new Scottish Parliament.

The lack of publicity for their Westminster work, while the Scottish media turn an intense spotlight on the erratic performance of the Scottish Parliament, rankles MPs.

Brian Donohoe, the MP for Cunninghame South, caused offence by breaching protocol with his candid assessment of the calibre and performance of MSPs: “So far, the Scottish Parliament has debated all the issues except the ones they have been given responsibility for, which demeans their position in the eyes of the public.

“It will take a generation before the follow-ups to the Browns, Cooks and Dewars decide that they will go to the Scottish Parliament instead of the real parliament.

“If things work out in ten years’ time and Holyrood starts delivering and stops wasting money on frivolous ideas, then devolution will be given more powers and people of that calibre will be attracted to it.”

He was voicing the concern of fellow MPs that they will be first to pay the penalty for Scottish disillusion with post-devolution politics. Before the coming UK general election, they want a concentrated campaign by Labour to remind Scottish voters of the Westminster dimension.

Besides cutting the number of MPs at Westminster, there is a strong case for doing the same in Scotland.

The figure of 129 MSPs was arrived at with one first-past-the-post member for each of the 73 parliamentary constituencies, plus seven list MSPs for each of the eight regions. Why so many?

Five list MSPs for each region would produce 40 and reduce the parliament to 113, which is surely big enough for a country the size of Scotland. And none of them would be missed . . .

Scot Nats, Lib Dems and Tories would bleat that this would hit them hardest, although Labour would lose in the Highlands and Islands.

But one of the most grating things (of many) about the Scottish Parliament is the posturing of parties; for example, the Tory party, which did not win a single constituency yet boasts 18 list MSPs, or the SNP, which won only seven constituencies – five fewer than the Liberal Democrats – but whose 28 list MSPs make it the main opposition party.

With parliamentary pay-and-expenses packages of £80,000 and more, this democracy overkill is an expensive luxury. Who said the devolution settlement was set in legislative concrete?