What is the point of Scotland’s Westminster Politicians?
The Scotsman, November 2nd 2013
Once upon a time Scottish politics meant one of two things: what your local council got up too, and Scottish MPs standing on College Green talking on BBC and STV about what often seemed far-flung issues.
The latter were our only articulation of national party politics. And while it now seems a long time ago it did produce a sort of effective politics and a range of ‘Big Beasts’ – from Tom Johnston and Willie Ross to George Younger, Malcolm Rifkind and Gordon Brown, to name but a few.
This was the age of what was called in polite circles, ‘the Scottish lobby’, but which also went privately by the names, ‘Scottish’ or ‘tartan mafia’. The romantic version of this is the folklore of ‘Red Clydeside’ and the 1922 general election when the city of Glasgow saw ten of its fifteen constituencies return Labour MPs for the first time. Upon their departure from St. Enoch railway station with crowds singing the ‘Red Flag’ they went south to change the Commons, but in the eyes of left-wing critics were more changed by parliament themselves.
The post-war reality was both more powerful and mundane. It was of Scots Labour MPs aided by on occasions, Tories, Liberals and Scottish Nationalists, coming together and operating to get more industry and monies out of London.
This gave Scotland a number of industrial plants: Bathgate, Linwood and Ravenscraig, while protecting public spending. But it also institutionalised a kind of dependency culture, of politics as constantly emphasising how poor and needy Scotland was to get favourable treatment.
Is it an accident that when the Thatcher Government was elected in 1979 the whole of Scotland was a Development or Assisted Area which allowed for government grants and assistance in attracting industry? And when the harsh winds of the 1980s blew, the previously successful pork-barrel politics protected Scotland compared to English regions. This kept Ravenscraig open until 1992, but was much less effective as ‘regional policy’ and less a priority for the Tories.
This though is increasingly a fading memory as far as today’s Scottish MPs are concerned. Post-devolution the world for most has changed dramatically. ‘The Scottish lobby’ is no longer a formidable and feared operation now there is a Scottish Parliament. And the oxygen of publicity that the media provided is now less prepared to give their every comment coverage.
Scots Labour MPs as the largest group affected, have reacted to this in a variety of ways. Some have shown anger about the creation of a Scottish Parliament and its displacement of them from the public gaze. Remember the unidentified Labour MP’s comment upon Henry McLeish’s aspiration that ‘the Scottish Executive’ could be renamed ‘the Scottish Government’; it could they said be called ‘the White Heather Club’ as far as they were concerned.
Others chose specialisation and developed expertise in a given area such as chairing a parliamentary select committee; John McFall for example until 2010 was chair of the Treasury Select Committee, while Anne Begg is currently chair of Work and Pensions, John Thurso of Finance and Services, and Ian Davidson of Scottish Affairs.
The most prominent response however has been silence and inactivity. ‘The Economist’ recently reported a ‘Public Whip’ study identified the 50 most inactive parliamentarians, disproportionately filled with Scots MPs. Yet, some Scots still cost the taxpayer a fair bit of money. Eric Joyce, MP for Falkirk, has been the most expensive MP in the Commons raking up the bills – one year followed in second place by nearby MP Michael Connarty and then Lib Dem Alistair Carmichael.
At other points many feel silence would be more appropriate. Scottish Labour MPs voted when their party was in office for student tuition fees of £3,000 per annum and foundation hospitals in England. These were Blairite reforms their party did not want in Scotland; and in the case of tuition fees, England did not want them either – the UK parliamentary majority being won by Scots votes (and without a previous party mandate either).
Then there is the recent case of Grangemouth which involved both silence and noise, the former from most Scots MPs and the latter from local MP Eric Joyce. He seemed to relish siding with Ineos, the company who own Grangemouth and trashing Unite, while trying to stir things up for Ed Miliband. Not exactly edifying behaviour when 1,800 local jobs hung in the balance.
The slow decline of the status and influence of Westninster’s Scottish contingent of MPs has been one of the unintended consequences of devolution. This is likely to accelerate in the future, with the introduction of a number of measures which will reinforce this marginalisation.
One is the cutting of the number of Scots constituencies – which have already fallen from 72 to 59 post-devolution; the shelved Tory ‘equal constituencies’ had planned 50 Scottish seats. This is likely to be revisited under any future Conservative Government.
Then there are the debates around qualified voting which have kicked around Westminster since the first Irish home rule debates in Gladstone’s day. This would revolve around ‘English Votes for English Laws’ (EVEL), but has all sorts of problems.
It could produce different parliamentary majorities such as a UK Labour majority and English Tory majority, which is built for instability and a very British Gorbachev/Yeltsin stand-off when one represented the union and the other the Russian Federation.
There are problems over defining ‘English law’ and maybe as importantly it goes against the idea of parliamentary sovereignty. But again it seems that sometime in the near-future qualified voting will occur which will see Scots MPs voting rights curtailed and two tier voting for MPs introduced. This will be a watershed constitutional moment, one with huge repercussions, which isn’t sustainable for long.
The role of Scottish MPs will increasingly become a thorny issue in the Palace of Westminster, their position giving them some power and influence without too much responsibility or heavy a workload. That’s a recipe for resentment which will eventually lead to change.
Whatever the result of next year’s independence referendum, Scotland’s MPs are going to see at best a diminished role if they remain in the Commons. If this is the case Scots need to understand that this has consequences in the union of the future, reducing Scotland’s voice and influence in the corridors of Whitehall. And while this may be irreversible, it also impacts seriously on day-to-day life north of the border.