If we must have more MSPs then let’s have fewer councillors - John McLellan

Murdo Fraser has suggested increasing the number of MSPs at HolyroodMurdo Fraser has suggested increasing the number of MSPs at Holyrood
Murdo Fraser has suggested increasing the number of MSPs at Holyrood
It wouldn’t take an expensive opinion poll to find out what most people think about increasing the number of MSPs at Holyrood and paying them more. Snouts in the trough and all that.

But with the introspection accompanying the 25th anniversary of the Scottish Parliament’s rebirth, there also seems to be an emerging consensus that the whole thing has been a bit of a let-down. Bad laws, bad government, partisan behaviour and all spiced up by regular scandals which we were led to believe could only happen at Westminster.

As former First Minister Jack McConnell put it in his foreword to a paper about Holyrood’s future by Conservative MSP Murdo Fraser for the Reform Scotland think tank, there is “poorer legislation, less accountability for ministers, a lack of confidence amongst the public and a wider lack of ambition and inspiration in our politics”.

Hide Ad
Hide Ad

This has come about, says Lord McConnell, because “the committee system has become ineffective in contributing to forward thinking and scrutiny. The strong whipping system … has made most debates and even question sessions predictable. Alternative voices within parties have been silenced”.

It’s pretty depressing, but anyone who has spent more than five minutes in the place will know it to be true. But is, as Murdo Fraser suggests, part of the solution to increase the number of MSPs? Do we really want even more places for party time-servers at the public’s expense?

The answer is yes and no, because the numbers in each party are such that virtually every one of them has a job of one kind or another beyond their basic representational duties and there is little room for mavericks to scrutinise their own side. And it is true Holyrood’s powers have grown, particularly over taxation, but the number of MSPs has not.

Murdo Fraser answers his own question in quickly dismissing suggestions of a second revising chamber like the House of Lords because “there is unlikely to be significant public support for a new tier of politicians in a country which many see as already over-governed”. But perhaps the answer is not just reforming Holyrood, but all layers of devolved government, particularly the bloated council system introduced by none other than Lord McConnell, as part of the Labour-Lib Dem coalition deal to deliver proportional representation for councils.

Hide Ad
Hide Ad

I saw the effect of multi-member wards first hand. Yes, local people can pick which one of their councillors to approach, but while many councillors are genuinely hard working, more than a few make very good use of their out-of-office reply and would only know their community councillors were meeting if they turned up on the doorstep with pitchforks and torches. Conversely, there is plenty of enthusiasm for grand-standing wannabe MSPs and MPs to mouth off on issues which are irrelevant to council operations, and that was even before the Gaza War erupted.

Countless hours of officer time are wasted on pointless reports, so here’s an idea. If the starting point is no more politicians and no more increases in their total salaries, not when there are extreme shortages of teachers, doctors, nurses and police officers, then cut the councillors. There are 148 councillors between Edinburgh and Glasgow alone, 19 more than there are MPS, so if there are to be more MSPs, it must mean fewer councillors. You’ll never notice the difference.