Scottish Affairs CommitteeWritten evidence submitted by Robert Durward, Managing Director, Cloburn Quarry Company

Politicians Are Becoming Dangerous

If necessity is the mother of invention then affluence must be the mother of decay. Our society is weakening and we have become lazy, abrogating responsibility for everyday matters to the political elite. In consequence, our politicians have become estranged, less able and driven by their own agenda.

The current independence campaign by the Scottish National Party is a case in point. Having collected just 23% of the available vote in 2011, the SNP have made breaking up the United Kingdom the predominant issue on the political calendar. It matters not that a referendum was but a minor part of their manifesto or that a consistent two thirds of the Scottish electorate, when polled, indicate a preference for staying put.

Although such plebiscites normally contain only a “for or against” option, proposed alternatives to independence in the forthcoming referendum are growing by the minute. Whatever we end up with, two things are certain; a) it will be hugely complicated and b) the electorate will have very little say in its final design. We have of course been here before with the Devolution Referendum in 1997. This allowed the political elite of the day to conjure up the 1998 Scotland Act setting out the parameters for the new Scottish Parliament. The 1998 Act can best be described as a short term fix by politicians to suit their own ends at that time. Rather than improving Scotland’s democratic system, it simply created a brand new set of problems; the Act is divisive, placing barriers between Scottish and English politicians; the parliament was not made responsible for raising the money it spends; a significant percentage of its members are of limited ability; it has no second chamber to moderate its legislation; it is overstaffed with 129 MSPs for only 73 constituencies; it sits for only one and-a-half days per week, it is expensive to run and voter turnouts are low.

In recognition that mistakes had been made, the Calman Commission was formed in 2007 to carry out a review. Their report, published in 2009, was aimed at “deepening devolution and increasing fiscal responsibility.” Few outside the magic circle contributed, but it has formed the basis of the Scotland Bill. This has made its way through both parliaments and is now at the committee stage in the House of Lords. Once again the public pay scant attention as the political elite prepares to hand down yet more complicated edicts.

Are politicians too smart for the electorate or have we become too complacent about those who act and speak on our behalf? This disconnect developed gradually over a long period of time and with many contributory factors; the growing ability of the state to control our lives; handouts to buy votes; consultations to provide the “right” answer; minority driven legislation; complex legislation; multiculturalism, rights instead of responsibilities, European diktats, the list is endless. Yet we descended the slippery slope of our own free will and now find ourselves in a situation that our ancestors, many of whom fought and died for our freedom, would never have countenanced.

Recovery is possible and the starting point must be the re-engagement of as many people as possible in the democratic process. It happens in other countries and it used to happen here. Paid councillors and regionalisation simply created fiefdoms of incompetence saddled with a “them and us” culture. It is time to replace paid bureaucrats with enthusiastic stakeholders working collectively for the common good.

Despite its shortcomings, the Scottish parliament fits the need for increased local decision making, but it must be improved. The usual suspects producing complex politically motivated reforms via self-appointed committees will no longer suffice. Any successful settlement will need to cater for the aspirations of the majority and be as straight-forward, simple and cost effective as possible.

From a business perspective the present system is catastrophic, incomprehensible and guaranteed to cause problems. There are 129 MSPs elected under a mixed first-past-the-post and proportional voting system for just 73 constituencies. A number of responsibilities are devolved to the Scottish parliament and some are reserved to Westminster. We therefore have a further 59 Westminster MPs who cannot take part in Holyrood proceedings, just as our MSPs cannot take part in Westminster debates. This is confusing, it is inefficient, it devalues our MSPs and it embeds division. Scotland was also deliberately hobbled with proportional representation to avoid any chance of its legislation upsetting Labour’s Scottish hegemony. Scotland’s 188 parliamentarians are numerically responsible for only 19,500 voters whereas English MPs are responsible for 68,000. Again from a business perspective, the solutions are staring us in the face, simplification and quality control.

Simplification: The roles of MPs and MSPs should be combined and their number set to match the number of constituencies available. We would then have 73 MSPs elected by first-past-the-post, 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.

Quality Control: The Scottish parliament has acquired an unfortunate reputation for profligate and lightweight legislation. The surest way of addressing this would be by the addition of a suitably qualified revising chamber. Members of the second chamber would be elected from their constituency of residence. They would stand on their experience and record rather than a political platform. In other words, they would be elected on their ability to deliver rather than their ability to promise. A non-political revising chamber of people from the community would address two significant problems. The growing disconnect between politicians and those who elect them, and politically motivated poor quality decision making driven by the constant struggle to get re-elected.

Complex suggestions are also emerging for creating different tax regimes from the rest of the UK. These proposals are idealistic, they have not been sufficiently thought through and they would cause endless confusion. In the middle of an economic crisis, this episode increasingly resembles two bald men fighting over a comb. How can we possibly explain such an egotistic and selfish campaign to other less fortunate nations? And how shall we explain it to our own children whilst teaching them to embrace and value other cultures? Our generation will have the dubious honour of being the first ever to leave its children in less auspicious circumstances than it enjoyed for itself. Are we actually going to compound our folly by breaking up their homeland as well?

The Scots who wish to remain within the United Kingdom must be given a viable option to vote for as a the status quo is plainly not fit for purpose. Claiming that other options could only be considered after independence had been rejected is pure political sophistry. If the political elite continue to disdain the wishes of ordinary people and exclude them from the decision making process, then they will simply create another rotten structure to replace the one we already have. I strongly believe that “devo-simple” would allow Scotland to once again forge ahead.

These ideas will no doubt be ridiculed by those in power—speak out before it is too late.

April 2012

Prepared 4th May 2012