I’ve spent 12 years now being up close and personal with the Scottish Parliament and engaged in more legislative processes than I care to remember. Some were fruitful, positive affairs – I can even point to amendments I helped draft and then watched being passed; others have been much less edifying and I still bear the scars. Consequently, some very poor laws indeed are being made. There are three forces at work currently conspiring to create a perfect maelstrom of trouble for the Scottish Government.
1) The Scottish Parliamentary procedures are not particularly kind to minority government
Indeed, they were developed from the perspective of there always being a majority in place, usually in the form of a coalition. Thus, there is no Standing Order on how committee convenors should exercise their casting vote, enabling them to ignore the convention of voting for the status quo, and to vote party politically either in support of or against a particular amendment. A recent bill that started life without a financial memorandum had so many measures with cost implications added to it, that the Presiding Officer had to make up the process as he went along for determining the proposals that made it in. The result was that few were happy with the outcome. Labour might be having great fun in the current climate at the SNP Government’s expense but it could be their turn after May 2011. They might consider it less of a sport when the tables are turned.
2) Scottish Government officials are unhelpful to the process
You would think that after four years, most might have grasped that minority government means they do not have the numbers to push through their bills and amendments. A compromise needs to be brokered on each and every issue. Of course, the way to avoid last minute bunfights is to engage organisations and individuals at the earliest stage of the bill process and to listen and hear their experiences and views. Sadly, it happens much less frequently than it should. Some officials are downright mendacious in the way they seek to play interests off each other – do they think they never communicate? – and in the false impressions they impart to Ministers. For others, it is simply a matter of pride, and I have some sympathy with this. They spend months carefully crafting a bill and this and that group will come along and trash it all, demanding that their preferences be substituted instead. I too would find it hard to smile and agree without at least putting up a fight. Then there are the can’t do attitudes that abound in the civil service: the officials who will spend inordinate amounts of time to find ways to frustrate a change or a compromise because that is their instinct, when embracing change and a range of opinions would ultimately make for far better law and far more constructive, efficient engagement.
3) Tribal Politics
Minority government has allowed this activity to flourish. The Scottish Greens and Margo have probably never been so courted since their youth: everyone knows their votes can be pivotal in any bill process. The Alcohol etc (Scotland) bill is probably one of the worst examples of tribal politics writ large. From the outset, Labour – doing the job of an opposition, one could argue – set out to deny the SNP Government its smoking ban moment and actively sought ways to oppose minimum pricing, in the face of huge support for the measure. Can 160 respected professionals and organisations – including Scotland’s chief medical officer and the World Health Organisation – really be so wrong? It set up a commission to come up with an alternative and unsurprisingly, it delivered, even though the proposal does not allow the Scottish Parliament to act but to defer to the UK Government to tackle the issue of the cost of alcohol. Which begs the question, what is the point of having our own Parliament if not to find Scottish solutions to Scottish problems? The Conservatives, whom one would expect to side with business interests, duly complied but at least everyone knew where they were coming from right from the start. And then we come to the Lib Dems. Whose health spokesperson supports minimum pricing, but whose leader is fuelled only, it would seem, by a visceral and irrational hatred of the SNP. He would simply not allow this Government to pass epoch making legislation and despite considerable support in his Group’s – and party’s – ranks for minimum pricing, has refused to countenance voting for the measure. Lost in amongst it all, of course, is the purpose for which MSPs are elected – to make a difference to Scotland and her people. Is it little wonder that turnout for the Scottish Parliament elections is on a downward spiral?
Which is not to say that the SNP Government has covered itself in glory with this bill. Its communication strategy was flawed from the start – proposing to outlaw alcohol purchase for under 21s set hares running and heightened antennae. At this eleventh hour, there is still no sign of the promised draft regulations on what a social responsibility levy will look like, which is poor form given this is a brand new measure that will radically shift the landscape and culture in our treatment and approach to alcohol consumption. More engagement with the industry interests at the earliest stages might have led to less entrenched opposition. Working with the interests on their side rather than assuming their support might have made for a more effective strategy on minimum pricing.
Behind it all are the special interests – in which I should declare an interest, because whisper it, I am a lobbyist. Although one who chooses to side with the angels (in my humble opinion) and work to improve the lot of marginalised and vulnerable groups, individuals and communities. No one knows how to exploit a parliamentary legislative process for our own ends – benign or otherwise – than the interests and their lobbyists. At times, we will work to build a coalition of support behind the government or against it; we will engage with officials constructively or ignore them; we will exploit the potential for tribal politics to promote or derail bill proposals. Occasionally, we get so caught up in the sport, that our primary purpose can be forgotten. In justifying the end, our means can be less than exemplary. We too are complicit and must share some of the blame for the fact that a huge opportunity to radically shift our culture and approach on an issue that costs our society dearly, has been lost.
Worse, the chance to deliver real and longlasting change to the people of Scotland, to their health and wellbeing, might also damage the Parliament’s standing in the eyes of the populace. What point is there in a Parliament that works against the common weal? That exercises all of its might NOT to make things happen? We – but most especially our politicians – might want to reflect on that and how we might all behave differently in order to promote and safeguard our nascent democratic institution.