Devolution – Great expectations

The Scottish parliament which took up its powers in July had nearly 300 years of expectations piled on its shoulders, none heftier than those from recent decades when self-determination has often seemed the panacea for all the ills of political disillusionment.

Nobody should be entirely surprised, therefore, if the parliament has yet to look the equal of the hopes vested in it. It spent its early weeks in unedifying debate about its own terms and conditions. Its coalition is a fractious child.

The Executive’s first legislative programme failed to thrill. The presiding officer has exchanged rude remarks with the press. There has been unseemly jostling between the first minister and the Scottish secretary. And a row over lobbyists has evoked that over-used, but emotive, Westminster word, sleaze.

Some of this was unavoidable. These are uncharted waters, and whatever the effort spent ahead of launch in trying to ensure that the parliament would be shipshape, it needs time to find its bearings. It is also a new design to its observers, who are consequently inclined to see every rough wave or every fumble by a crew member as evidence of inherent conceptual flaws in the vessel itself.

But there is a danger that disappointment, if allowed to fester, could become chronic. This is a parliament doomed to stand perpetual trial, to face constant comparison with an alternative panacea, embodied in the objectives of its principal party of opposition. In that sense, its mandate is essentially to suck it and see.

The hope must be that the Scots are canny enough to give their parliament time to prove itself, and that they know better than to mistake transient shortcomings for endemic ones.

They have been encouraged to expect not just a new administrative framework, but a new politics, and that takes time. It requires a change not just of structures but of customs and practice, and of attitude. Such changes do not happen overnight.

If it finds it hard to deal with the black arts of the lobbyist, for example, the parliament is only up against a problem that confronts every legislature in the developed world, including the mother of parliaments itself.

Scotland brings the added dimension that its public life is a very small place. We all know one another. In the long run, that should be a strength for a parliament that aspires to be consensual. Short term, it can look conspiratorial.

What aggravates the difficulty is comparison with the trumpeted ambition to conceive an open, accessible politics that would render such services as the lobbyists provide obsolete. Once again, we are up against it. That does not make the ambition wrong.

In time, we may be grateful the boil has been lanced so soon.

None of which means that the parliament should be exempt from critical appraisal. Indeed, in its formative years, it can only benefit from the sceptical attentions of its critics – provided they are honest enough and smart enough not to mistake the costs for a fundamental flaw in representative democracy.

Yet, as we have seen, the parliament needs to establish its legitimacy in the eyes of the electorate quickly, and that means being seen to uphold, or at least to try to uphold, its founding principles. None of these sits easily with the competitive partisanship, which is the instinct of the modern politician, nor with the immediate self-interest of any of the major parties.

Some of the omens, though, are bright. The committees, on whose robustness much of the parliament’s claim to be different will rest, are just starting to get into their stride and to cause ministers laudable inconvenience.

Backbench legislation which reflects the electorate’s will more than the executive’s, for example on warrant sales or fox-hunting, may help dispel the occasional impression that the parliament is connected by flex to Millbank Tower.

A decent start has been made towards partnership in policy making in fields like social inclusion. The concordats with Westminster, now finally published, should avert some of the inevitable territorial skirmishes with Westminster, as would a change of Scottish secretary (abolition of the post might help even more).

But there are discouraging signs too. In camera committee hearings on lobbying belong to the old politics. Concordats, which nominate Tony Blair final arbiter, do not convey the impression of contracts freely entered into. The old Scottish Office instinct persists of trying to replicate English ministers’ initiatives in miniature.

Nor are the media exempt from reproof. Some newspapers have yet to grasp that, in this politics, Executive and parliament are not synonyms. Failing of the former does not necessarily betray inadequacy in the latter.

Nor, in a system that aims to be open, need all attempts to influence be regarded as pernicious. Legislator inexperience, too, may be a price worth paying for not having a chamber full of old tags.

There is, in other words, a learning curve still to be negotiated, by the parliament, by the Executive and by those who sit in judgement of both. Things need to settle down. But they need to do so quickly.

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