Euan McColm Euan McColm

How the SNP broke Holyrood

Credit: Andrew Milligan/PA Wire/PA Images

Twenty-five years have passed since the opening of the Scottish parliament and the issue of just how well devolution is working is a rather awkward one for the current SNP-led government. This week, both the Scottish Conservative and Scottish Labour parties have made entirely clear that reform is needed. Labour believes that Scottish mayors might be the answer; some Conservatives want a complete overhaul of the way laws are scrutinised. The question is: would either solution work?

The fact that the SNP broke the Scottish parliament is hardly new. It became clear in 2014, during a meeting of Holyrood’s European and External Affairs Committee. An expert witness, law professor Adam Tomkins and former Scottish Conservative MSP, had the audacity to contradict the SNP’s narrative about relations with the EU post-independence. It was at a time that the SNP, led then by Alex Salmond, was in full campaign mode and, with the ‘indyref’ just around the corner, the nationalists were firefighting on a number of fronts where they had no credible answers – from currency to pensions to borders. On the issue of Brexit, whose referendum would take place two years later, Salmond asserted that his government had obtained solid legal opinion that an independent Scotland would retain membership – when it had nothing of the sort. 

And on the subject of UK assets, Tomkins dared to voice the unpopular opinion that, should Scotland leave the UK:

The UK’s diplomatic corps, embassies and international relations—and the machinery that delivers all that—would become the diplomatic corps, embassies and international relations of the rest of the UK. The public institutions of the UK would become the public institutions of the rest of the UK. It is important for people to understand that that would not be a question for political negotiation in the event of a yes vote; it is a matter of law.

None of this supported the SNP’s repeated assertions that independence would be seamless and that Scotland would retain all the benefits it enjoyed as part of the UK. SNP MSP Willie Coffey criticised the law professor for his attitude, before fellow Nat and committee convenor Christina McKelvie shut off Tomkins’ microphone and brought his evidence to a premature end. It was, and remains, one of the most shameful and instructive moments in the 25-year history of devolution — made possible by the SNP’s dominance of Holyrood.

After all, Holyrood’s committees were supposed to provide the scrutiny and challenge that might come from an upper house. In a parliament elected by a voting system – a mix of first past the post and proportional representation – designed to encourage the need for coalition and cooperation, it should have been impossible to cajole or overrule them. But when the SNP won an unprecedented overall majority in the 2011 election, the party took its pick of all the major convenerships and stuffed committees with hall-wits whose loyalty was not to the pursuit of truth but to the aims of the SNP. This small but significant example is just one of many that indicate Scotland’s parliament is in desperate need of reform. 

The most shameful and instructive moments in the 25-year history of devolution was made possible by the SNP’s dominance of Holyrood.

In recent history, the most obvious case would be the handling of the pre-legislative consultation on Scotland’s gender reforms by committee members. The equality, human rights and social justice committee – under the convenership of the SNP’s Joe FitzPatrick and his deputy and Green MSP Maggie Chapman – all but ignored the many people and organisations with concerns about the law, preferring to pack evidence sessions with representatives of government-funded activist groups that were fully committed to change. The consequences of this? The committee failed to properly explore the implications of proposed gender reforms, like self-identification, on the UK-wide Equality Act. It produced a piece of legislation so poorly considered and badly drafted that after MSPs passed it, Scotland Secretary Alister Jack was compelled to block it in an unprecedented use of Section 35 of the Scotland Act. 

If Scotland is to see good governance in the future, the current system must be overhauled. Scottish Labour leader Anas Sarwar said this week that his version of devolution reform involves repairing ‘relationships between the Scottish and UK governments’, having fairer funding for councils and introducing a ‘Local Democracy Act’ which would create regional mayors. Scotland Secretary Alister Jack suggested on Wednesday that laws made in Holyrood should even be scrutinised by the House of Lords. Meanwhile Scottish Tory MSP Murdo Fraser comes down somewhere in the middle, drawing extensively on work done by his colleague Donald Cameron – now Baron Cameron of Lochiel – while he was serving at Holyrood.

Fraser has produced a document with the Reform Scotland think tank titled: ‘A Blueprint for a More Effective Scottish Parliament’. In one of his most interesting proposals, the Conservative MSP suggests that committee convenors should instead be elected, rather than appointed, and paid a supplement for their responsibilities. It’s certainly one way of ensuring fairer treatment of proposed legislation and could help stop governments that believe they are all-powerful from having too much influence. Another idea that Fraser pays credence to is the case for an increase in the number of MSPs from the current figure of 129. Although a tough proposal for a government to spin to fed-up voters, there is sense to it – and he may see cross-party support, given that SNP MSP Fergus Ewing has previously called for a fourth Highland seat while current Presiding Officer Alison Johnstone told the Scotsman on Saturday that increasing the number of MSPs in Holyrood ‘should be looked at’.

It’s not in the current SNP government’s interests to change things right now, given the Scottish parliament appears to work in their favour. But after the 2026 Holyrood election, however, the nationalists may be less powerful than they are now – if countless polls are to be believed – and Scotland’s other parties must act decisively to change the set up of their parliament. As Holyrood has attracted more powers, there is more to be scrutinised. And if there is to be any form of good governance in Scotland, the scrutiny must be fair.