26 October 2015

High quality Lords debate made Commons and Holyrood look dire


George Osborne needs to cut a deal on tax credits, and quickly. The Chancellor’s proposals were defeated in the House of Lords and all of the government’s warnings of looming constitutional apocalypse were ignored by peers. Politics Home has a full account of the votes and the Chancellor and Prime Minister now have to decide whether to declare war on the UK’s unelected second chamber. Most likely, once all the shouting is over and tempers have calmed, a compromise will be arrived at, although if the Chancellor wants to mitigate the damage to his leadership prospects he needs to appear somewhere soon saying that he will listen and bring forward measures to soften the impact of the tax credit changes.

What the debate in the Lords this afternoon – featuring insightful, skilful, clever, heartfelt speeches – did make clear is how high the standard is there. I say that as someone who thinks reform is unavoidable. Yet, compared to the general standard in the Commons and in the Scottish Parliament in Edinburgh the Lords is a paragon. I cannot comment on the Welsh Assembly, never having been there. But on the Commons and Holyrood the position is quite clear.

The Commons, as a bigger chamber and with a unique atmosphere developed over centuries, has an advantage. There is, despite the modern dismissive view that things ain’t what they used to be, a lot of talent on both sides of the House. It is just that the tendency to pantomime-style howling drowns out or overshadows a lot of the good work.

In the Scottish Parliament, the situation is much, much worse. When I mentioned this on Twitter, while waiting for the Lords result, it was greeted with the predictable reaction from fanatical Nationalists. The Scottish Parliament is the cradle of Scottish democracy, it was elected by the people, and so on, and so on, which means it cannot be mocked or questioned by the people.

It might have been elected by “the people” but in its structures and its composition Holyrood is every inch the creation of the Scottish political Establishment and the party machines that control it. And it is dire. Absolutely dire.

Nicola Sturgeon is a first rank operator, as is the leader of the Scottish Tories Ruth Davidson, and there are a handful of gifted MSPs. Beyond that it is like Lanarkshire Council, on a bad day.

The unicameral system is calamitous, meaning there is an appalling shortage of scrutiny. The committee system that was supposed to be the jewel in the Holyrood crown is a joke, controlled by the party managements, meaning the SNP now. Legislation has been of a shockingly low quality and in education, health, enterprise and the arts the mismanagement of the Scottish government has been more than matched by the low-grade scrutiny delivered by successive intakes of MSPs.

This is not – I repeat not – an example of the notorious Scottish cringe. As a Scot I am embarrassed that Holyrood is so bad, and that the nation of Adam Smith and David Hume is reduced to its current condition. I accept as a devo-sceptic that it cannot be abolished, but why can’t it be improved dramatically? Why can’t Nationalists take off their blinkers and think not about party advantage but about the shamefully low quality of Scottish democracy as it is now without agitating constantly for more of it?

Anyway, back to Westminster. Bit of a mess for George Osborne. Over to you, Chancellor…

Iain Martin is Editor of CapX