Brian Monteith: Just how bad can Holyrood get if we don’t discuss its future?
Another week of breaking news from the Scottish Parliament brings yet more examples of arrogance, delusion and scandal that question the need for it at all.
It was all meant to be so different. “Whae’s like us” was the implicit cry that underpinned so much of the referendum campaign of 1997 – and then too the opening of the Scottish Parliament. How much better would our politics be, we were told. How much more clean, how much more civil and considerate – why look, we are even being nice to the Scottish Tories now!
Our Committee system was constantly paraded as superior to anything at Westminster. (It definitely is not.) The outcomes of our policies – based only evidence, don’t you know – were going to be so much better. (On measurements of health, education, life expectancy, economy and more, we’ve fallen behind both the UK and our own past standards.) And the greatest conceit of all? Why, those scandals, that’s not us. (Nope.)
Well, some 25 years on and just last week there were enough examples of how Holyrood is no better than the circus surrounded by a swamp that is the Palace of Westminster.
Last week we had the Scottish “Government”, in all its imperious condescension, announce that rather than scrap its failed policy of a minimum unit price for alcohol it would raise the price by 30 per cent from 50p to 65p. The policy has not helped Scotland’s problem with drink, instead the number of alcohol-related deaths has increased to the highest since 2008, and the evidence exists that (especially) young people are switching to cheaper mass-produced chemical drugs rather than alcohol.
The so-called evidence that justified the policy was not fact-based but computer modelling that has since been shown to not reflect the reality of human behaviour we are now experiencing. The elephant in the room that is never openly discussed is how can the price of alcohol be cheaper not just in England, but in many other European countries, yet the problems of alcohol abuse are less pronounced? The answer is that alcohol addiction is not about price, it is about our cultural attitudes towards drink and the abuse of it.
The other truth is that this Scottish Government cannot ever admit it is wrong and so it will continue to make every Scot pay more for their tipple as a collective punishment for the few that need help, for their craving means they never respond to price rises anyway.
Not to be outdone, the Scottish Tories, now oh-so comfortable in their devolved skin, are proposing e-cigarettes and heat-not-burn systems be banned from use in enclosed public places, and advertising restricted. Never mind that vapes have undoubtedly provided an attractive alternative to those who used to, or might be tempted to in future, smoke tobacco – causing smoking rates in Western societies have fallen dramatically. Never mind that any evidence of harm from vapes is thinner than a cigarette paper. Never mind that many past advocates of smoking bans now champion vapes as an alternative.
Oh no, when the purpose of a parliament is seen by those who inhabit it as repeatedly passing bans, conceiving hurdles and restrictions for daily life, including ways of relaxing and channelling the stresses of modern living, then we should not be surprised the new Scottish Tories join the race to see who can first come up with the latest restriction.
Belief in personal responsibility, the freedom of the individual, light touch regulation? No, the Scottish Tories wish to be as puritanically collectivist and authoritarian in ordering our lives as any openly socialist party.
As for the personal behaviour of Scottish politicians no-one should be surprised that human failings, which we all have, eventually surfaced to various degrees. The insult to our intelligence is not that some MSPs have been forced to resign from high office – but that we were told our politicians would be better than politicians in Westminster or the world over.
Now we see the Health Secretary resign, without a mention or apology for his lies and deceit that has brought him down. He may be in line for a £12,000 tax-free ministerial severance whilst remaining on an MSP salary of £67,672. Thus his expenses claim of £11,000 for a data usage bill while on holiday, that he eventually paid for only once it was established to not be parliamentary business, could be covered by the taxpayer after all.
Yet again, the need for a system of public recall by an MSP’s own electorate is laid bare and looks unanswerable. Michael Matheson should not be able to remain sitting comfortably until the next Holyrood election in 2026; if his electorate feel disgusted enough to force a by-election the system should make it possible. There’s another unfavourable comparison with Westminster.
As a test to elicit whether there is any hope for change I have one question for the opposition parties at Holyrood – how will they re-engineer the SNP’s Holyrood machine?
Will they introduce compulsory redundancies to the massive taxpayer-funded Scottish Government media and adviser network, reputedly some 175 strong? Back in 1997 Michael Forsyth and his five ministers were getting by with just two advisers and a small press team of single figures? What changed? The institution that is Holyrood arrived and its growth has been in lock step with its conceit of itself.
When Holyrood’s justification for existence is that our political hubris is at least as bad than the other lot’s, but at least it’s our hubris – it’s not really a justification, is it?
It's time to accept Holyrood is not working as intended or promised and discuss what’s to be done about it. Just how bad will it be in another 25 years if we don’t?
Brian Monteith is a former member of the Scottish and European Parliaments and editor of ThinkScotland.org
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