The Scottish Conservative and Unionist Party launched their manifesto at 11am on Monday 19 April 2021.
When it comes to making changes to improve democracy, conservatives are usual timid in their approach. One only needs to look at their attitudes towards House of Lords reform under the coalition and their initial opposition to the Scottish Parliament to see that. More recently, at a UK the Conservative Party is hardening its stance against any positive changes at all, with the party even going as far as pledging to replace the slightly fairer supplementary vote used for mayoral elections with the archaic First Past the Post voting system. That said it is worth remember that the party does have some proponents of electoral reform, most notably Derek Thomas MP who is part of the Make Votes Matter alliance for Proportional Representation.
When it comes to improving Scottish democracy, the Scottish Conservatives’ manifesto takes some small steps.
The manifesto has a section on strengthening Scotland’s democracy.
A recall rule (“Mackay’s law”)
The party’s manifesto commits the party to introducing a recall rule for MSPs similar to the one that exists in Westminster. The party have branded it as Mackay’s law following Derek Mackay’s resignation as finance minister and as SNP member in February 2021. This would allow “the public to recall MSPs who have broken the law, grossly undermined trust or failed to contribute to Parliament for more than six months”.
Votes at 16
The party also promises to retain votes at 16 for Scottish elections, showing that the party fully accepts this and that there is broad consensus for votes at 16 in Scotland.
On the voting franchise, they oppose votes for prisoners, which is a discussion for another time.
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Scottish Government numbers and MSP pay
The manifesto also makes a promise to cut the number of cabinet members in the Scottish Government and freeze MSP and ministerial pay over the next five years. There are question marks over whether such a move would improve Scottish democracy.
We believe in efficient government, not costly politics. The SNP used to promise a “smaller, better-focused ministerial team” that would “reduce bureaucracy” but over their 14 years in government the SNP have become more bloated than the Labour-Liberal Democrat coalition they replaced.
To reduce the cost of politics and get the Scottish Government 100 per cent focused on the task of rebuilding our country, we support a reduction in the size of the Cabinet from 12 to 6, as the SNP themselves did in 2007, and a cap on the number of ministers and advisers. This will create a more focused team, solely engaged in our economic recovery and the running of devolved public services.
Given the need to maximise resources going to our frontline public services and the need for politicians to lead by example, we will support a freeze in MSP and ministerial pay for the next five years.Scottish Conservative Manifesto (2021)
Strengthening the opposition
In this section of the Scottish Conservative manifesto, the party references the Alex Salmond enquiry, making the case that the Scottish Parliament needs to be able to better scrutinise the Scottish Government. The party pledges its support to lead a cross-party commission on doing this, with a remit including the accountability of ministers in parliament and the need for MSPs to have additional legal protections in debates.
Interestingly, the manifesto also tags on the possibility of the commission examining the practices of the Scottish Parliament “to make them more suitable for MSPs with young families”. Although not explicit, this pledge opens the possibility for the party to support permanent hybrid working even after the pandemic, which would be most welcome.
Overall, the party’s pledges on improving Scotland’s democracy are unsurprisingly timid and conservative (with a small c). The pledge to keep votes at 16 shows that the policy now has widespread support in Scotland, even if the UK Conservative does not support an extension of the UK franchise.
Their proposal for a recall mechanism is most welcome, although there would need to be significant checks and balances like at Westminster to prevent the system being exploited politically.
Unsurprisingly, the party does not support a voting system upgrade (that would be headline news here and probably elsewhere too) nor does it support an end to dual mandates (hardly unexpected considering Douglas Ross plans on holding one if elected to Holyrood). The party’s manifesto also fails to mention restrictions on second jobs for MSPs or a return to four-year parliamentary terms.
Lastly, as already mentioned the party does not mention a permanent hybrid parliament but its proposed commission would have a remit for recommending ways to make parliamentary life easier for MSPs with young families. This potentially covers the possibility of a hybrid parliament and would be a welcome upgrade to Scottish parliamentary politics.
You can read the full manifesto here.
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