Saturday 16 August 2014

It’s the SNP's attitude to democracy that worries me most

Back in 2011 something massively unexpected happened. The SNP won an overall majority in the Scottish parliament. This was unexpected not least because even Labour at the height of their popularity could not win an overall majority at Holyrood. They always had to govern in coalition. Indeed the Holyrood voting system was designed so that it would be nearly impossible for one party to rule on its own. But lots of Scots who would not normally vote SNP decided to give them a chance. Lots of Labour supporters were sick of Labour back then. The SNP campaigned well, Mr Salmond was popular and many Scots thought why not give them a chance. Independence wasn’t mentioned much during the campaign and anyway voting SNP seemed safe enough even for those of us who supported the union. They couldn’t possibly gain an overall majority could they? But they did.

The SNP knew full well that their victory was something of a fluke.  It surprised even them. They also knew that they had not won overall power because the majority of Scots wanted independence. But it immediately became clear that they were going to use their power to try to achieve that end. Well fair enough. Everyone knows that the SNP is the party of independence.  Why shouldn’t they try to achieve their long term goal? Why not indeed? There are however, ways of ruling that are an abuse of power and which go against the traditions of Scottish and UK democracy.

The fact that you win an overall majority does not mean that you can do just anything. It would clearly be an abuse of power to win an election and then abolish all other parties and all future elections. But it’s also an abuse of power not to take into account the views of the minority and to govern without consensus. It’s this above all that the SNP have done. As soon as they gained their majority in Holyrood, they began to abuse it. It would have been a gesture that they intended to govern with consensus, if the SNP government had picked a presiding officer from one of the other parties. But no she had to come from the SNP. It would have been a gesture towards consensus if the SNP had allowed their MSPs to sometimes vote with the opposition. This is a useful way in which a party with an overall majority can be held in check. But there has been no dissent, no rebellions and the SNP members vote as if they were members of the Supreme Soviet rather than the Scottish parliament.

The Scottish parliament lacks a revising chamber to act as a check and balance on the government. The intention was that committees would be the equivalent of a revising chamber, telling the government when it had made mistakes or when it needed to think again. But the SNP immediately started to undermine this system by establishing absolute majorities in each committee and ruling out any dissent. Again this is counter to the traditions of Scottish and UK democracy.

One of the most important features of democracy is to have an independent, impartial civil service. These are the people that provide continuity between governments and also act as a check and balance on governments, preventing abuses of power. There is a tradition in Scotland and the UK that there is a distinction between party and government. You cannot for instance use general taxation to fund party activities or election activities. The reason for this is that the state is much larger than any opposition party. In countries like Russia where the distinction between Mr Putin’s party Edinai︠a︡ Rossii︠a︡ [United Russia] and the state has been abolished, no other party has a chance for the whole civil service works in Mr Putin’s party’s interest. It is for this reason that a fully independent civil service is so vital for a functioning democracy.

But the SNP have used the Scottish civil service to produce propaganda and party political manifestos. Civil servants as well as state employees like academics have been threatened that it is not in their interests to say anything contrary to the SNP’s policies. The White Paper “Scotland’s future” does not even attempt to be objective. It is an election manifesto in all but name. State funds have been used to fund the SNP’s campaign for independence. Websites and other government literature is blatantly party political. When I mention this to SNP supporters, their response is always we won an overall majority so lump it. But Mr Putin also won an overall majority and now the Russians must lump him forever.

If the SNP win the independence referendum, they will be in charge of the divorce negotiations. No doubt others would be involved also, but we’ve seen by how they run Holyrood, that these others would not be able to outvote Mr Salmond and Ms Sturgeon.  It would be a Scottish parliament with an SNP overall majority right up until Independence Day that would vote on these negotiations and which would be able to put SNP policies into any Scottish constitution.  They could put in what they like. Who could stop them? They have an absolute majority and we’ve already seen how they use it.

What happens if the SNP lose the referendum? Here we really see their attitude to democracy. I don’t know a single No voter who would not accept the result of the referendum as decisive. If Yes wins, we all accept that Scotland will become independent. But I hardly know a single independence supporter who will cease to campaign for independence after a No vote. Some of them are planning to wait as little as five years.  Oddly they think it is democratic that if No loses the result is decisive, but if Yes loses it isn’t.

The independence referendum is the SNP’s policy from first to last. It is a direct consequence of Scots voting for them in 2011 and would not be happening otherwise. The best guide to how an independent Scotland would be is how the Scottish Independence Party behaves now. They complain about a non-existent democratic deficit. The real democratic deficit is how they rule Scotland. Lots of Scots must be wishing they hadn’t voted for them in 2011. Don’t make the same mistake in 2014.