Wednesday, 13 September 2017

Escaping probation

This week has seen the twentieth anniversary of the vote to establish the Scottish Parliament, and the newspapers and television have run a number of stories around that fact.  Fair enough; nice round numbers like 10 and 20 have a resonance for us as humans, even if in mathematical, logical, and historical terms they are pretty much irrelevant.  And we can probably expect similar coverage at other equally irrelevant milestones in the future.
More interesting for me was the nature of the coverage.  Much of it revolved around what the Scottish Parliament has achieved and the sometimes implied, sometimes directly stated question about whether that list of achievements is enough to justify its establishment and continued existence.  It’s an approach which inevitably highlights the continued divisions between those who believe that such a parliament should exist and those who do not. 
But it’s an approach which is never, ever applied to the corresponding institutions in London.  The House of Lords and House of Commons emerged as separate institutions in the fourteenth century; surely a comparable assessment of what they have achieved during that time and whether their continued existence is justifiable is long overdue?  There must be a convenient round-number anniversary which can serve the purpose of raising that question – the seven-hundredth, perhaps.  Seven hundred years is surely long enough to make a proper assessment of their value and worth.  Have they achieved enough to deserve to be allowed to continue to exist?
It’s wishful thinking on my part, of course; the institutions of the UK Parliament have never felt, or been made to feel, any need to justify their existence to anyone.  It’s part of the reason that they are able to continue with arcane traditions and procedures; it’s all perceived as being the natural state of affairs despite the, shall we say, ‘eccentricities’.  But the fact that the media wouldn’t even dream of applying the same approach to Westminster as to Holyrood clearly reveals that they don’t view them in the same terms.  They don’t see Holyrood (and the same applies to the Assembly in Cardiff) as being the natural political expression of the existence of a Scottish nation and identity.  It is a subordinate body, always on probation and answerable to the real seat of power.
And in a sense, they’re entirely right.  Under the UK constitution, the Scottish parliament and Welsh Assembly have no legitimacy of their own; their legitimacy derives from laws passed at Westminster – laws which can be repealed at any time.  They’ll still be asking the same questions at the 30th anniversary of the vote – and every 10 years thereafter for at least the first century, but they’ll never ask them about Westminster.
There is a way of escaping permanent probation, but it depends on having the courage to seize it.

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