Smith Commission Letter

Dear Lord Smith,

I write on behalf of the Scottish Progressive Party, a registered party which is now attracting a growing level of interest in Scotland.  We appreciate the opportunity to express our views on this important matter and we hope that you find our input helpful.

For ease of reference, we use Smith Commission bullet points.

1.     Principles: Our submission is based on the following principles;

a.     That the ad hoc promises of more powers made by the leaders of the Conservative, Labour and Lib-Dem parties in the run up to the referendum were made without parliamentary approval and were unconstitutional. However, we do not believe that they had any discernible impact on the outcome being more than matched by the completely unrealistic promises made by the Yes camp.    

b.     That the Devolution Settlement and subsequent Scotland Acts did not adequately involve the people of Scotland and have caused a great deal of division, expense and anxiety. We hope that the Smith Commission bears this failure in mind.  It is simply not acceptable to say that ‘they had their chance’ proactive steps must be taken to make sure that the majority are supportive of whatever is decided.  As an example, we strongly believe that all future meetings of the Smith Commission should either be held in public or televised.    

c.     That the biggest complaint against the status quo, and this was supported by virtually all of the Yes camp as well, has been the poor quality, lack of accountability and incompetence of the Westminster government.

d.     That there are now welcome signs of reform at Westminster such as MP recall and the devolution of more power to the cities and regions. However, these reforms must be given sufficient time to feed through.

e.     That any further devolution of power to Scotland risks the future of the United Kingdom by splitting it into four disjointed and competing factions.

f.      That there are major systemic and economic problems throughout the UK, especially in the public sector, and any further devolution to Scotland at present would be hugely diversionary and make these problems a great deal more difficult to address.  

g.     That the Smith Commission has been given an impossible task within an impossible timeframe and that any Scottish settlement can only be provided within a broader UK context and after appropriate public consultation. We are now in the internet age and there is neither excuse nor reason to exclude the public from full engagement in this process.  

2.     Current Situation: Rather than increase accountability and access, Holyrood has become a miniature version of Westminster with the same faults.  It has also gained the same unfortunate habit of acting unilaterally, as the recent one sided and minority driven campaign for independence attests. It is vastly over-staffed; Scotland’s 188 parliamentarians are numerically responsible for only 22,421 voters whereas English MPs are responsible for 72,414. The quality of its legislation is suspect, it is hugely expensive to run and it spends much of its time creating additional divisions and tensions with Westminster. Devolved powers are already extensive and cover the things that most affect our daily lives.  Health, education, transport, enterprise, agriculture, planning and justice are all controlled from Edinburgh.  Unfortunately, rather than making good use of these powers to achieve improvements for Scotland, the Nationalist government concentrates on fomenting division with Westminster. More than two million Scots voted to remain in the Union however their wishes will count for nothing if we hand over even more power to a government intent only on separation.   

3.     Advantages of Devolving More Power:  We support Localism and indeed Scotland was once very well served by local councils ably controlled by volunteer councillors.  We also note a movement towards creating much more local autonomy in England. We think that this is a significant and long overdue initiative and we strongly believe that it should be replicated in Scotland as well.  However, rather than devolving more power to a Parliament hell-bent on separation, a more far reaching and public consultation process is now needed. The Scottish Progressives hope that the Smith Commission will at least lay the foundations for this to take place. 

4.     What Disadvantages Might Accrue from Devolving more power?  Any further devolution of power to Scotland would have at least two significant effects.  It would give oxygen to the call for an English parliament and it would be used to ratchet up the pressure for a further Scottish independence referendum in the near future.  Having wasted two years of everyone’s time and a great deal of money on fighting and losing an independence referendum, that was only a minor part of its 2011 manifesto, the Nationalists should if anything be losing powers rather than gaining more. 

5.     Do the advantages outweigh the disadvantages?   Quite the contrary, the risks of trying to fulfil non-specific proposals made at the last minute without Parliamentary approval cannot be overstated.  Devolution has not been an unqualified success but anyone who dares mention this is immediately attacked, not just by the Nationalists but by the sections of the press who appear to regard Holyrood and its sources as essential newsfeeds.    

6.     Interdependencies: There are massive interdependencies between Scotland and the rest of the UK, especially England. These were well rehearsed throughout the independence debate and there is no need to repeat them here.  However, there can be no doubt that the clear majority in Scotland who voted No would have taken these issues into account when deciding how to vote in the referendum.   

7.     Practical or legal barriers:  We foresee few practical or legal issues relevant to our proposals.  As previously stated, any further reform in Scotland must be in step with the rest of the country if the UK is to survive in any recognisable form. 

8.     Financial advantages:  The present setup in Scotland is not only divisive and inefficient it is hugely expensive as well. The running costs of Holyrood are £2m per week; an enormous amount which is not reflected in either the competence of its members or the quality of its legislation.  From the contacts we have established it is apparent that many people, especially in the business sector, are unhappy about Holyrood but are afraid to speak out. The Scottish Progressives’ proposals would greatly improve the cost benefit ratio of the Scottish Parliament.          

Our proposals: 

In recognition of the limited time available to the Smith Commission, we have restricted our proposals to the essential points.  However, we would be pleased to supply more details on request.  The Scottish parliament mirrors many of Westminster’s faults and has become a self-serving and exclusive club. However there is now a window of opportunity to consider reforms along similar lines to the rest of the UK.  However the public must have a say in all of this.  They had no hand in designing the original Devolution Agreement and the two subsequent Scotland Acts also completely bypassed them.  For any settlement to be successful it must take the people with it.  All future reforms must also cater for the needs and aspirations of as many people as possible and be as straight-forward, simple and cost effective as practical.  

We propose therefore that the roles of MPs and MSPs are combined and their number set at 73 to match the number of constituencies.  We would then have 73 MSPs able to go to Westminster.  With appropriate timetabling, MSPs could easily share their time between the two parliaments.  Debating UK wide issues at Westminster and devolved issues at Holyrood, Scottish politicians would no longer vote on English issues. 

To better connect the Scottish parliament to the people, we propose the addition of a revising chamber. Members of the second chamber would be non-political and selected from their constituency on their experience and track record.  A revising chamber of accomplished people from within the community would address two significant problems. The growing disconnect between politicians and those who elect them, and politically motivated poor quality decision making. The Scottish Progressives strongly believe that combining the functions of MPs and MSPs to provide a simplified system of governance would be warmly welcomed by Scots. We also favour constituent based MP recall, an impending Westminster reform which Scotland could all too easily lose out on.  We believe that giving the electorate more control over their elected representatives offers much better prospects for improving Scotland than simply extending the present system. 

In conclusion:

The Smith Commission is a direct result of the leaders of the UK’s three main political parties making ad hoc and unconstitutional promises in a desperate attempt to avert a Yes vote in the Scottish independence referendum.  That said, we hope that the Commission can shine a bright light on certain problems that need to be addressed in Scotland.  Despite the Scottish National Party being able to choose the date of the referendum, having a favourably pitched question, being extremely well funded and having a great deal of assistance from the Scottish civil service, it lost by a significant margin.  This fact must be taken fully into consideration before any further leverage is given to the minority driven campaign for independence.  A great deal of commercial and economic uncertainty was caused by the referendum process and some permanent damage might yet result. Many firms were compelled to carry out a risk assessment on the possible effects of a Yes vote on their company.  It is highly likely that at least some of these firms will have concluded that they would be better off elsewhere in any event.  The ongoing campaign by the losing side for additional powers can only exacerbate this problem. In acknowledgement that a clear majority plainly wish to retain the Union, every effort must now be made to bring this episode to a speedy conclusion whilst retaining the UK for future generations.