Devolution at 20: MSPs should forget the party politics and work together – Kate Forbes

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Two decades into devolution, with Holyrood firmly established, Reform Scotland asked prominent Scottish politicians what they would change to make the Parliament work better.

There is no guidebook for new MSPs – whether it is the legislative process, how to engage across and within parties or managing constituency business. So, you learn on the job, adopting habits and practices without always asking why. Now that I live, eat and breathe parliamentary politics and accept the status quo as relatively normal, it is good to remember that not everybody else does.

I’m regularly asked questions about process, structure and purpose, but the most frequent question I hear is why politicians are so poor at working together. A primary school boy visiting the Parliament told me that if he spoke to fellow pupils in the same way as some MSPs spoke to each other then he would get detention and so, he asked, why didn’t MSPs? Fair question. Non-party-political members of the public wonder why politicians can’t collectively see the problem and find a solution. That’s surely how most of the population who are not party political feel about the sorry mess of Brexit. It’s true that, at a national level, our politics is only as strong and robust as the debate between parties and politicians. That requires disagreement, challenge and opposition. But, if all politics is local, then it is difficult to see how working at cross-purposes leads to better results on a community or regional basis. 

Last week, a constituent was amazed when I told him that he was represented by a minimum of 12 elected members. Like everybody else in Scotland, he has at least 12 advocates and champions – one MP, one constituency MSP, seven regional MSPs and three or four councillors. Imagine how powerful it would be to have 12 people at every political level working together to deliver meaningful change in a particular region. We have Scottish Parliament committees which run on portfolio or statutory lines, scrutinising healthcare or justice services, taking first-hand evidence from witnesses and acting as a forum of debate and deliberation. But we don’t have any formalised structures that enable cross-party MSPs to work together on a regional basis. There is no regional caucus, no internal voice for the regions. At a local authority level there are usually area committees, but there is no equivalent for the Parliament. The list system is often commended for how it balances the parliament and moves us away from an entrenched, two-party system. It should also be celebrated for the way it brings regional voices into the Parliament, but I’m not sure we make the most of it.

All that is to say that if I could change one thing it would be to better organise and harness the collective weight of regional MSPs – constituency and list MSPs working together. I’ve seen it work well on an ad hoc basis. There is already some good cross-party working amongst Highland and Island MSPs in terms of education and healthcare, where an MSP from one party has invited others to take part in formal discussions about recruiting and retaining professionals in remote areas. We discussed the challenges with some of the public bodies in attendance, agreed on a set of actions and decided to meet again to take these forward. No politicking, no public disagreement and no calls on the Government to do anything specific. In fact, the solutions are there already, but it takes cross-party leadership on a regional basis to find them. Most recently, the Islands Bill saw all of the Island MSPs support new legislation for the Western and Northern Isles because, obviously, the islands share a very similar set of challenges so it makes sense for the relevant MSPs to get together, figure it out and work collaboratively.

In my home patch, representing the constituency of Skye, Lochaber and Badenoch there has been more consensus than disagreement amongst politicians of different hues since the election in May 2016. Sure, there is competition, public disagreement and the inevitable electioneering. List MSPs have one eye on a constituency they rather fancy and the constituency MSP has got one eye on them. Opposition MSPs make hay out of difficult situations and MSPs of the administration try to resolve them and take credit. But all of us doubtless hear the same gripes about distance and costs, remoteness and rurality. If the problems were easy to resolve, then they would have been solved years ago. I use the Highlands as an example because I know it well, but the same will be true of every region or area. Deep-seated challenges of social injustice, economic potential and community cohesion don’t always need a national plan – sometimes it just takes local leaders pooling ideas and experience and taking the long-term view. Without a mayoral system, it is the local politicians that need to show local leadership and nearly always the solutions are already there.

Having a formalised group sitting somewhere between a Cross-Party Group and a Parliament Committee that requires regional MSPs to work together, could be a vehicle to tackle age-old problems and be a single voice for an area. It could be backed up by standards and scrutinised by constituents. The whole regional, cross-party concept might fly in the face of empty political mischief making, but with so many representatives working at cross-purposes the public could be forgiven for thinking that the sum of the pieces is considerably less than the whole. 

Of the electoral regions, none are so impossibly large as the Highlands and Islands. Stretching from Shetland to Helensburgh, it encompasses a land mass that is bigger than the state of Belgium. Aside from the obvious difficulties of travelling across land and sea, there is the additional challenge of ensuring every community gets its fair share of surgeries and visits. This region, like others in Scotland, is unique in terms of geography, social challenges and economic opportunities. Scotland might be small, but there are significant regional variation sand it’s the local MSPs that understand them best. Additional bureaucracy won’t make any difference, but encouraging MSPs of a region to meaningfully collaborate could.

Kate Forbes is the SNP MSP for Skye, Lochaber and Badenoch and Minister for Public Finance and Digital Economy