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Original steering group rates Holyrood a success – with some downsides

9 October 2019

The vision for "a participative, open and accessible Parliament" at Holyrood has thrived in its first 20 years, according to the members of the steering group who helped shape the Parliament's procedures before it first sat.

Their conclusion is contained in a report published ahead of this coming weekend's Festival of Politics at Holyrood, which includes an event titled "Expectation versus reality: the Parliament at 20".

Members of the group were invited to Holyrood over the summer by the Presiding Officer, Ken Macintosh, to discuss whether Scotland’s new politics transpired as they envisaged.

The nine original CSG members who met found that the Scottish Parliament has become a central and permanent part of Scottish life.

However, they also commented that politics has been more polarised and tribal than they expected, and that while committees have achieved much over the last 20 years, the sheer weight of their legislative workload has meant they have had limited capacity to undertake other important elements of their role.

Whereas their aspiration had been for a new approach to politics where debate would be more deliberative and consensus driven, "Instead, we have seen parties dominate the debate with little scope for personal contributions and inclusive discourse. The concept of consensus politics has been attacked by some as unrealistically seeking a 'clubby' approach to debate. This
misunderstands the meaning of consensus which we argue means debating issues and being prepared to change one’s mind and compromise to reach a majority view. This was our hope for debate in the new Parliament and it is a source of disappointment to us that the reality has been somewhat different."

On committees, the report states that the unicameral nature of the Scottish Parliament was "a deliberate design, with powerful, independent committees taking the oversight function performed in other jurisdictions by a second chamber". The fact that this has not happened "inevitably raises the question of whether the structure needs to change": there is a deficit in the checks and balances planned in 1998.

Another disappointment has been a weakening of the position of local government in Scotland. "The Scottish Constitutional Convention recommended that the Scotland Act should commit the Scottish Parliament to securing and maintaining a strong and effective system of local government, embodying the principle of subsidiarity... What we have seen instead with successive governments is a tightening of central control over local budgets and spending priorities."

They add: "In the absence of a written constitution, consideration should be given to how best to enshrine and strengthen the powers of local government with a view to creating parity of esteem with central government."

However they conclude that Holyrood has been a "huge success", and "We urge the Scottish Parliament to build on the success of the first 20 years, to push beyond the confines of party domination and lead Scotland towards an inclusive, enlightened discourse for the benefit of us all."

Mr Macintosh said: “Their report provides us with a number of interesting, challenging ideas which I’m sure will form the basis of a great debate at this weekend’s Festival of Politics.

“There are already changes underway stemming from the Commission on Parliamentary Reform. The views of the CSG will be a great contribution to the ongoing debate on how the Parliament can continue to grow and develop.”

Click here to view the report.