Politics

Why the House of Lords should scrutinise the Scotland Bill

The SNP, according to Scotland on Sunday, is ‘furious’ about plans for the ‘unelected’ House of Lords to scrutinise the Scotland Bill. (http://www.scotsman.com/news/politics/top-stories/snp-furious-over-lords-power-over-scotland-bill-1-3821894)

The Lords are appointed not elected, granted. But there is more to democracy than being elected. After all, Hitler was elected.

A strong democracy relies at bottom on the protection of the rights of the individual citizen. That requires more than an elected bunch of career politicians being left in sole charge of all of the levers of power.

 

A strong democracy has other institutions which defend the rights and freedoms of the people. A  second chamber or some other authoritative body that can scrutinise proposed legislation. An opposition party which is powerful enough to challenge the government. A free press, institutions of civil society such as trade unions and associations.

In Britain, the House of Lords has become a custodian of civil liberties.http://www.economist.com/news/britain/21654084-house-lords-aged-overcrowded-and-increasingly-effective-democratic-embarrassment.It  is also the only legislative body to have called into question in recent years the Scottish police’s draconian use of stop and search powers. (http://www.sccjr.ac.uk/about-us/people/ms-kath-murray/ )

The SNP has a strong democratic mandate, of course. More than half the population voted for them at the general election. But the increasingly powerful and centrist Scottish government has few counterbalancing powers north of the border and there is something of an erosion of the rights of the individual.

There is no effective second chamber at Holyrood. The SNP controls the committee system at Holyrood and pushes through legislation which is sometimes a dog’s breakfast, frankly. An example is the controversial legislation aimed at giving every child in Scotland a named guardian. This has changed the threshold for interventions from “risk of serious harm” to the vague “concerns over welfare”. (http://www.heraldscotland.com/comment/herald-view/herald-view-getting-it-right-for-youngsters.130600823 ).

A friend asked me recently “if my son goes to school and says I don’t agree with gay marriage will they take him away?” That’s unlikely. But could my friend’s views give rise to welfare concerns and lead to intervention by the state in his family life? Possibly.

On land reform, there is other woolly sounding language which could do with a bit of effective scrutiny. (http://www.planningresource.co.uk/article/1353048/scottish-land-reform-bill-proposes-community-land-buying-powers )

What is the Scottish government’s obsession with collective ownership as a solution to land issues based on? It didn’t work too well in communist China. I recently met a Gaelic-speaking Highlander who had fled the island of his birth as he felt the one thing worse than having his land owned by an absentee toff was having the incomers of the local community association telling him how to run his croft.

And what opposition will there be in Holyrood next year? Next May the Labour party seems likely to lose traction: the SNP and Greens are proposing that ‘yes’ voters work the PR system by giving a one - two for the ‘Yes’ parties. But what will this mean in terms of the democratic voice for the No voters? This could make Scotland effectively a one-party state.

The independence of the judiciary is also under threat. The Scottish government's programme on domestic violence is just one measure which removes discretion from the courts - they have to prosecute no matter how trivial the case. I heard of one recently involving a 17 year old girl who slapped her boyfriend.

The Scottish press is weak and it has had little support from the SNP which prefers the fawning  ‘National’ to any rigorous or critical journalism. Journalists who had been critical - including the Guardian’s Severin Carrell - were barred by SNP apparatchiks from an important press conference following the referendum (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=yYA8JYSZ8a0 ).

Scotland’s councils have gradually had power sucked to the centre; the council tax freeze, endless budget cuts, government control of issues that would once have been left to them.

In short, Scots should not be too ready to dismiss the scrutiny of the Mother of Parliaments, which has done a better job than many others of protecting the liberty of the individual in the past. We should not be too complacent. As David Hume said: “It is seldom that liberty of any kind is lost all at once.”