Posted by Euan Bennet on 25/09/2013
We are often told by the No campaign that Scotland benefits from being able to influence the UK – and that we benefit in some nebulous way from the “clout” that being part of the Union brings us. The “best of both worlds” narrative has been developed by the Better Together campaign as one of the meaningless platitudes that sounds positive enough to (they think) mask the dark heart of negativity that comprises their entire campaign.
That being said, recent pronouncements by senior Labour party MPs have somewhat undermined this case for the Union.
Whatever one expects to happen in the event of a No vote, it is worth examining the assertion that as part of the Union, Scotland has a say in the government and policies that are put in place for us. Here the facts are so public, and so established, that browsing Wikipedia practically tells you everything.
It is well-documented now that Scotland’s votes have never swung a UK government one way or another, and that in 60% of the years since 1950 Scotland has had a government that it rejected at the ballot box.
Within the UK Government there are two Houses of Parliament – the Commons and the Lords. Both still govern Scotland in Reserved matters (which will be the topic of a future post, but headline matters include welfare, nearly all taxation, energy, macroeconomic policy and defence & foreign affairs). The No campaign argues that since Scotland is represented in these Houses, we have democratic influence within the UK. Since we certainly don’t have influence in electing the government of the day, how do these claims stack up in the context of overall representation?
- House of Commons – 650 MPs – of which representing constituencies in Scotland – 59
- House of Lords – 819 – of which representing Scotland – technically zero
Since membership of the HoL is by appointment rather than linked to any constituencies. 92 of the 819 are hereditary, while another 26 seats are reserved for Church of England bishops (with a further 12 allowed). No other Church of the British Isles is afforded such a privilege. As this report from the London School of Economics shows, only 22 countries in the world have one Parliamentary chamber which is entirely unelected – and ten of those are not classified as ‘electoral democracies’, while the other twelve are Commonwealth countries which are still using the UK model. The UK HoL is of course the largest of the 22.
As an aside, by age the House of Lords is shockingly unrepresentative of society: there are 8 times as many Lords aged over 90 as there are aged under 40.
In the final analysis Scotland, with 8.4% of the UK population, has the democratic capability to influence just over 4% (59 out of 1469) of members of the Houses of Parliament. In a bizarre twist, the 38 Church of England bishops sitting in the House of Lords technically have more say over the defence, welfare and economy of Scotland than do the 129 directly and proportionally elected MSPs in the Scottish Parliament.
This is probably an even more serious democratic deficit than the fact that Scotland rarely gets the government it votes for. The UK Parliament is a medieval institution that has demonstrated for more than a century that it is incapable of meaningful reform: even when given the chance to vote on a change to the terrible first past the post voting system, the system on offer was a very minor improvement that was campaigned for extremely poorly and ultimately defeated.
I had intended to compare the voting systems in the UK and Scotland to other comparable nations, but that will have to wait until a future post: this one has gone on for long enough already. It’s clear that Scotland’s voters have very limited influence over our nation, but with independence we will have a modern democracy worthy of the name.
Image credit: Wings over Scotland
[Updated 10.30am 25/09/2013: removed section on devolution to save for a future post and shorten this one]