Our constitution, July 2012: Prime Minister of Scotland

Before we go on to the “Formal election of Prime Minister of Scotland by vote of Parliament”, the next item in the Constitution, Newsnet Scotland has the 4-part video of the Constitution Commission meeting from Thursday online now, if you want to watch it. (My only criticism of the evening was that I think each speaker on the panel should have been restricted to five minutes each at the start – ten minutes took up a full hour of the ninety minutes scheduled. Still, they were good speakers.)

The First Minister of Scotland is nominated by the Scottish Parliament to the monarch for appointment. The Scottish Parliament must nominate a First Minister within 28 days of an election, or else the parliament dissolves and another election has to happen.

The Prime Minister of the UK is appointed from the House of Commons by the monarch, who must appoint the MP most likely to command the confidence of the lower house.

The Prime Minister in the UK wields the powers of the Crown. (This is why I am a republican, and the main reason I think the Head of State question matters: it’s not because showy pageantry bores me.)

If we continue with the SNP’s preferred option, the Queen as Head of State in Scotland, removing the Union of Parliaments but retaining the Union of Crowns, then the First Minister levels up to Prime Minister and acquires the Crown powers for Scotland.

Crown prerogative enables governments to fill a huge range of senior appointments in the armed forces, the security services, the civil service and the judiciary, without reference to the people’s representatives, though also, in most cases, without anything more than a token reference to the monarch whom they are said to be serving. It is still the Queen’s commission, the Queen’s pardon when prisoners are released, the Queen’s pleasure when they are jailed sine die, Queen’s Counsel to plead in the courts, royal commissions to inquire into weighty issues, a royal charter to govern the BBC and a Royal Mail to carry the post. But the will which drives the institution is that of Downing Street, not the palace.

In a recently-published report, Democratic Audit (funded by Joseph Rowntree’s Charitable Trust) found 92 areas of “continuing concern” and 62 areas of “new and emerging concern” with British democracy. The Democratic Audit carries out a “comprehensive and systematic assessment of a country’s political life” to answer two basic questions:

how democratic is it and how well are human rights protected?

Some aspects of the Democratic Audit’s concerns are outwith Scotland’s concern (for example, the report regards the SNP as “one of the smaller parties” and mentions England’s uncertain status in the Westminister Parliament) but mostly, this applies to Scotland as much as to the rest of the UK:

Britain also ranked below average compared with other wealthy democracies in the OECD and the EU, and even worse when measured against Nordic countries for issues from party membership and turnout to corruption, press freedom, income inequality and trade union membership.

This was “further evidence of the areas in which [the UK] falls short, not of an abstract ideal of democracy, but of what has been demonstrated to be possible,” adds the report.

Democratic Audit measures the UK based on “the two basic principles of representative democracy”:

popular control and political equality: that is, how far do the people exercise control over political decision-makers and the processes of decision-making? And how far is there political equality in the exercise of that control?

The idea behind the Scottish Parliament’s formation was that no one party would ever be able to gain majority control. Granted that the SNP had, in two elections in succession, special circumstances that won them more seats – the guddle of the ballots in 2007, and in 2011 of course the electoral meltdown of the Liberal Democrats (and the failure of the Scottish Greens to stand constituency candidates) – still, it takes a capable party to win the seats even with political circumstances blowing your way.

The First Minister of Scotland is appointed by the Scottish Parliament in exhaustive ballot, and the original thought was that, rather than as at Westminster the leader of the party becoming the Prime Minister when their party wins Westminster’s majority vote, the First Minister has to be acceptable to MSPs across party lines. There was a presumption of coalition government in the Scottish Parliament.

The First Minister has a closer connection to be democratically elected than the Prime Minister. We vote for MSPs: MSPs vote for First Minister. The Prime Minister must win election as an MP, but usually from a safe seat: the Prime Minister is elected in internal party elections in which the general electorate have no say, and appointed by the monarch if their party has won a majority of seats in the House of Commons.

Does this democratic deficit in government have an effect on the democratic audit?

Stuart Wilks-Heeg, the Democratic Audit report’s main author:

“Over time, disengagement skews the political process yet further towards those who are already more advantaged by virtue of their wealth, education or professional connections. And without mass political participation, the sense of disconnection between citizens and their representatives will inevitably grow.”

If First Minister levels up to Prime Minister on independence, we must have constitutional limitations on what the Prime Minister can do. Responses of “But what do you imagine Alex Salmond would do?” are at best charmingly naive: it does not matter if you consider the man given the powers of the crown is the most trustworthy man in the world, who would never fail to respect the sovereignity of the Scottish people, never use the Crown powers shabbily or dishonestly, still: no one should have those powers without constitutional limits.

Or so I think. Take the Scottish Constitution survey.

Sadiq Khan, shadow justice secretary at Westminister and former chair of human rights group, Liberty, said:

“What I find really troubling is there’s no shortage of big issues which we must get to grips with – the economy, the future of our health, education and social care systems, our environment – many of which grab the attention of the public, but there’s a disconnect when it comes to party politics.”

Index of all posts in the Scottish Constitution series
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