Posted by Euan Bennet on 22/08/2014
With four weeks to go until the referendum, Yes voters took over Twitter yesterday with the hastag “#YesBecause”, which was trending worldwide within a couple of hours of its inception, and top of the UK trending list for most of the day. A fantastic wave of optimism and hope demonstrating the arguable beginnings of a groundswell of Yes support, which reached people all over the world. The “unfiltered reality” of the campaign was displayed and the mainstream media even picked up on it.
As usual, the internet being the internet, some of the comments in response to this campaign were ill-informed, insulting, and infantile. One of the comments I spotted reminded me of a blog post I had planned a while ago, so the negativity of internet bampots has been useful for once. The comment was along the lines of “all politicians are corrupt liars, what difference does it make” – the epitome of the No campaign, there: let’s not try to change anything because it might not work. Leaving aside the obvious flaw in the argument i.e. keeping politicians within kicking distance is a heck of a motivation to do a good job, there is also the fact that the Scottish Parliament works in such a way that it is literally impossible for corruption to develop to the levels that are found in the bricks at Westminster. A bold claim? Not really: there are three very simple reasons and three very good case studies to consider.
Simple reason 1: Expenses are publicly available for all to see
There is a searchable online database of MSPs expenses claims (http://www.scottish.parliament.uk/msps/12455.aspx) which have strict rules about what can and can’t be claimed as expenses. Unlike Westminster, the rules are applied to their full extent (see case studies below). Remember all the fuss when the Telegraph revealed that large numbers of Westminster MPs had been claiming duck ponds and pornography on expenses paid by public money? That can literally never happen in the Scottish Parliament.
Simple reason 2: The parliamentary code of conduct is actually enforced
The Code of Conduct (http://www.scottish.parliament.uk/msps/code-of-conduct-for-msps.aspx) is a strict set of rules that determine how MSPs should behave while serving in office. Of particular interest are the sections on “paid advocacy” and “declaration of interests”. Remember all those Westminster scandals when Ministers were paid by lobby groups to force through favourable legislation? Can’t happen in Scotland. Remember when the UK Government privatised the NHS while more than half of them have commercial interests that will benefit from the privatisation? Impossible in Scotland, due to a) having a sensible code of conduct, and b) actually enforcing the behavioural standards expected of public servants.
Simple reason 3: Legislation has to pass through 3 rounds of committees in between Parliamentary readings before it is passed
The proportional voting system in the Scottish Parliament acts as an immediate check on governments. In Westminster, if the Government wants something to happen it will be forced through regardless – there are many examples of this in recent years, although most recently the Labour party has voted with the Tories on nearly every major issue. I’ve already written about how unlikely another majority government in Holyrood is. Any minority or coalition Government in Scotland is will automatically produce better legislation than any Westminster Government simply because compromises will need to made to pass anything, meaning a pluralist input is taken on each issue. Even if the largest party wants to do something, the smaller parties and individual independent MSPs still get a say in the laws that are passed, and get to add their own influence. This sort of constructive co-operation between parties is anathema to Westminster’s medieval confrontational style, but completely natural and normal for most other countries.
On top of the proportional makeup of the Parliament, the committee structure means that even with the present majority Scottish Government, each piece of legislation is properly scrutinised by all parties before the whole Parliament votes. Again this is just the same as any other comparable country, but completely unlike Westminster.
Case Study 1: Henry McLeish
Mr McLeish was First Minister of Scotland for a year, resigning near the end of 2001. He had previously been a Westminster MP since 1987. He resigned as First Minister following allegations that, while a Westminster MP, he had continued to claim expenses for an office which he sublet out to the local Labour Party. Famously he said that it was a “muddle, not a fiddle”.
This case study shows two things. First, the allegations were made public while Mr McLeish was an MP, but the Westminster system did nothing to reclaim the alleged £36,000 of public money once he stopped being an MP. Second, when the Scottish Parliament standards were applied, even this retrospective issue was brought to light and dealt with – Mr McLeish resigned and repaid the money, even though there was no way that he personally could have profited from it.
Case Study 2: Wendy Alexander
Ms Alexander was the Leader of the Labour Group in the Scottish Parliament for less than a year, in 2007-08. Following her famous declaration to “Bring it on!”, referring to an independence referendum, in May 2008, evidence surfaced allegedly from within her own party that she had wrongly declared a donation of £950 to her leadership campaign the previous year. The Electoral Commission and the Police invested the matter, with the Electoral Commission stating that although there was no basis for further action, Alexander “did not take all reasonable steps” and that “there is not sufficient evidence to establish that an offence has been committed”. The Scottish Parliamentary Standards committee separately investigated the issue, which resulted in a one-day ban from Parliament as punishment for not declaring the donation on the Members’ register of interests. Facing the issue being dragged out over the summer, Ms Alexander instead decided to step down as Leader.
Case Study 3: David McLetchie
Mr McLetchie was an MSP from 1999 until his death in 2013. He was Leader of the Conservative Group in the Scottish Parliament from 1999, until “Taxigate” in 2005. It was revealed by the Sunday Herald that he had claimed over £11,000 in taxi receipts. This was a large amount of money, but the problem wasn’t the amount; it was the fact that he had claimed for journeys he had taken for Party business. This abuse of public money led to his resignation as Leader.
To put all of this in context: Henry McLeish resigned over something that happened before the Scottish Parliament even existed. Wendy Alexander wrongly declared a £950 donation. David McLetchie handed in the wrong taxi receipts. This is the level of corruption that has been stopped in the Scottish Parliament – i.e. negligible. The system simply does not allow someone to defraud public money with impunity.
In contrast, Westminster has untold levels of corruption: the MPs expenses scandal of 2009 is still ongoing. Disgraced politicians leave Westminster only to return as unelected Lords – the public has no way to get them out of public office permanently. Of 850 Lords, more than 40 are currently not sitting in the Lords due to criminal convictions – yet there is no way to depose them!
By all means, distrust all politicians. But at least do a bit of basic research first into the level of corruption that a) exists and b) will ever exist in the Scottish Parliament, before blindly declaring “independence won’t make a difference”. Independence will make all the difference in the world to our political system – a Yes vote is the only meaningful positive choice for reform that we will have this generation.